Health Cooperation Expert: “Diplomats are Pandemic Fighters”

Dr. Joel Buenaventura (top right) and Director Emma Sarne (bottom right) discuss how international cooperation helps address the pandemic in FSI’s online Mabini Dialogue.

The role of diplomats in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic was explored in the Foreign Service Institute’s virtual Mabini Dialogue entitled “Heal the World: Wielding Global Health Diplomacy in the Time of Covid-19,” held on 06 November 2020.

The main speaker, Dr. Joel Buenaventura, Chief Health Program Officer of the Bureau of International Health Cooperation, Department of Health, challenged diplomats to mainstream public health in foreign policy and diplomacy. He emphasized that international cooperation, particularly during a pandemic, saves lives. 

Dr. Buenaventura said that health diplomacy does not only refer to state-to-state negotiations, but also to interaction among non-state actors. This is evident in the different areas of health cooperation that the Philippines is currently involved in, such as donations, resource mobilization, the Solidarity Trial for vaccines, surveillance of COVID-19 cases, and vaccine security and access. 

He pointed out that just as health is not only within the purview of the medical profession, so too diplomacy is not an exclusive realm of diplomats.

In the midst of mobilizing resources to address the pandemic, Dr. Buenaventura cautioned that public health strategies must be needs-based rather than donor-driven. Health has become a politicized issue and diplomats must ensure that the hard-earned benefits of international cooperation responds to the needs of the people and address the pandemic in a timely manner. 

Director Emma R. Sarne of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) – Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations (UNIO) shared the view of Dr. Buenaventura on the importance of solidarity and multilateralism in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.  While the pandemic is primarily a health crisis, it is also a socio-economic one, which has given rise to unemployment, disrupted economic development in countries dependent on migrant labor and foreign remittances, and widened gaps in vital social sectors, such as education. 

Ms. Sarne also explained the various initiatives of the international community through the United Nations (UN), as well as the Philippines’s response at the multilateral level, such as co-sponsoring UN General Assembly resolutions and joint statements and coordinating with the World Health Organization. 

The current COVID-19 global crisis has underscored the importance of multilateralism, and that countries cannot overcome the pandemic unilaterally. Policies created through international collaboration are necessary, not only to strengthen national health measures, but also to reignite socio-economic growth.

Both speakers underlined the importance of cooperation at the international level and the vital contribution of diplomats and other stakeholders in ending the pandemic. Challenges to deeper integration of health diplomacy into foreign policy should be seen as opportunities to further develop a Philippine foreign policy that is more responsive to public health issues. 

The Mabini Dialogue was attended by DFA officers and staff, including those in foreign service posts, representatives of other government agencies, the diplomatic corps, and international organizations.