“Trust is the main element of global solidarity.”
Text: Ulrica Segersten
A year ago, still unaware of what was to come with the SARS-CoV-2 virus a year later, Dr Suwit Wibulpolprasert, senior health official in Thailand, was one of the speakers at Skoll World Forum in Oxford. It is an annual event gathering nearly 1.000 of the world’s most influential social entrepreneurs, thought leaders and strategic partners at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to exchange ideas, solutions and information.
In retrospective it is interesting to note that Dr Suwit at the time was raising a point about pandemics, past and expected in the future. In his speech he was focusing more on the panic connected with a pandemic and the role of media by saying: “ending pandemics is good, but equally important is ending pandemic panic”, noting that “with social media panic and rumors are spread very efficiently, but we have to discuss instead how we could use social media to end panic.”
He also concluded that the most important thing we can do is to bring back trust in societies, since trust is something that can be broken in seconds but takes a lifetime to rebuild.
An ambition of building trust across borders has been an important motivation for Dr Suwit during his long career from rural doctor to senior advisor of disease control to the Thai Ministry of Public Health.
When speaking with Dr Suwit Wibulpolprasert one year after the Oxford event, in the midst of the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic, I wonder if he still stands by his statement about fighting pandemic panic being as important as the pandemic itself.
“Oh yes, the danger of infodemics is still here, it is always present in any kind of outbreak, creating nervousness and fear among people and politicians. Fear of the virus itself and then fear of the new vaccines, are affecting lives, economies, stock markets and politics”, says Dr Suwit.
What Dr Suwit (and WHO) calls “infodemics” challenges the institutions and companies which need to be built on trust: the UN organisations, WHO, Gavi-COVAX, vaccine companies and many more.
“Trust is the main element of global solidarity. Without trust, it would be difficult to work together on influenza outbreaks and other pandemics.”
Dr Suwit admits that he is impressed by the trust between academia, politics and government institutions seen in Sweden during the COVID-19 pandemic, at least until now.
“One must remember that it takes extremely long time to build the kind of public trust you have in Sweden. It is an asset more important than anything else.”
Still, things can go awfully wrong. Sweden has had high death tolls during COVID-19 among elderly, especially at nursing homes. Dr Suwit is hoping that the public trust can survive the failure to protect the most vulnerable from the virus.
One of the key institutions during COVID-19 is of course the WHO, which relies on trust for its very existence. Dr Suwit thinks it is extremely frustrating that WHO has been slow to update information on COVID-19 at its websites, but this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t trust the WHO as a whole. He does.
“It’s like in a relationship, there is trust even though neither party is perfect”, says dr Suwit. He is known for his frank criticism of the WHO, for instance its failure to harvest the most “low-hanging fruits” of public health. Among other things he has commented on the obvious unfairness of the WHO requiring countries to contribute their viruses to the WHO system for free, while allowing parts of the viruses to be patented and commercialized without their knowledge. In spite of this, the risk is high that low- and middle-income countries will not be getting affordable access to the vaccines or the technologies to make them.
Dr Suwit is seen as a godfather of The Prince Mahidol Award Conference (PMAC), an annual gathering of global health experts promoting better health for the world population. 2021 the PMAC event will be held virtually, featuring several webinar sessions with co-hosts. The main points of the discussions are:
• How to draw lessons from the national and international preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic
• Assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health and non-health sectors and mitigation efforts
• How to lay a roadmap and take action for a better-prepared, more resilient and sustainable system for the next Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and to ensure global health security.
The main (virtual) conference was held 29 January–3 February 2021.
Dr Suwit hopes that the conference still embodies the spirit of Prince Mahidol, in Thailand honored with the title “Father of Modern Medicine and Public Health of Thailand” because of his efforts for the advancement of modern medicine and public health in Thailand. Alongside with the global event this Nobel Prize of public health has been awarded to 87 persons for outstanding progress in medicine and active promotion of public health.
“The event is about putting the public interest and good first. We invest USD 2 million to host this, but most of all our intention is to invest social and intellectual capital”, says dr Suwit.
“In the spirit of Prince Mahidol it feels good to show this commitment for the global public good together with our 20 co-hosts.”
When PMAC started the intention was not to create the biggest possible global health event.
“But, we don’t want to exclude anybody. We want to make sure all the different voices are heard from policymakers, international and civil society organisations, industries, governments, NGO:s, universities and students.”
The agenda is mainly decided together with the co-hosts (SIGHT and the government of Sweden are two co-hosts).
“The co-hosts need to have an own drive and be active citizens in their own countries.”
Dr Suwit thinks it is especially important to open global health doors for young people and involve them in the sessions.
“We encourage our co-hosts to nominate young leaders and let young leaders address the meetings. Our co-operation with IFMSA (International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations) is very important in making young voices heard.”
The advice Dr Suwit would like to give young leaders and students aspiring to be game changers for global health governance, is very clear:
“You should never attend global health conferences with the attitude that it might help you advance your own career. No, you must have a heart for the public, a genuine wish to make a difference in your local contexts and be willing to meet and make a difference for real people.”
“It has taken many, many events to prove that this is the key, to prove that this is the spirit that drives us.”
About PMAC 2021
The Prince Mahidol Award Conference (PMAC) is an annual gathering of global health experts to deliberate and forge a path for better health for the world population.
PMAC 2021 will seek to address the issue of global health security and pandemic preparedness and response through the case study of the COVID-19 pandemic.
SIGHT has hosted parallel sessions within this subtheme that you can watch on pmac2021.com:
1: Beyond building back better – a healthier and greener world after COVID-19
2. Dealing with Disasters Fast and Slow: Health System Resilience for COVID-19 and Climate Change
3. The future society- population dynamics following COVID-19
4. Will the healthcare technologies from COVID-19 lead to a permanent shift in how global healthcare is delivered?
5. The Lancet-SIGHT Commission on peaceful societies through health and gender equality.
About Dr Suwit
Dr. Suwit Wibulpolprasert is a general practitioner, a public health specialist, an administrator and a policy advocator. He began his career as a director and a practitioner in four rural district hospitals in Thailand from 1977 to 1985. Later he was the Director of the Northeastern Public Health College, Director of Technical Division of the FDA, Director of Bureau of Health Policy and Plan, Assistant Permanent Secretary, Deputy Permanent Secretary, and Senior Advisor at the Thai Ministry of Public Health.
His main interests are in health policy and planning, and international health. He has published more than 100 papers, reports and books locally and internationally.
In Thailand, Dr. Suwit is the editor of a local journal for para-medical personnel and had produced radio and television programs on health and social issues for more than 15 years. He is currently the President of the Folk Doctor Foundation; Evaluation Board member of the Thailand Research Fund; and Board member of the Health Systems Research Institute, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation, the National Health Security Board, the Thai Medical Research Council, the National Nanotechnology Centre, the Mahidol University Council, and the National Science and Technology Board. Besides all these works, he has run 8 marathons.
For international involvements, he represents Thailand in many international health forums and the World Health Assembly.
Prior to his retirement, he served the highest government official rank as a Senior Advisor in Disease Control to the Thai Ministry of Public Health. Since December 2015, he is as an adviser to the Ministry of Public Health on Global Health. Currently, he also serves as a Member of the National Health Security Board, Health Systems Research Institute Board, and the National Research and Innovation Policy Council.