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Plenary programme of the World Congress on Public Health

The theme of the Congress, Public health for the future of humanity: analysis, advocacy, and action, shows the commitment by global public health community in responding to new challenges of climate change, poverty and inequalities that are leading to mass migration and conflict. These new circumstances are also a threat to health. We, as a global public health community, must challenge and hold to account those with the power to make a difference. And we must act, making real our commitment to health in all policies.

In a series of eight plenary sessions we will further explore these challenges. 

Plenary 1: What happened to the Enlightenment?

Health public policies are built on evidence and reason. Today, these principles are under attack, from politicians who see the truth as optional and by powerful vested interests using ever more sophisticated means to shape public opinion. The ability to create deepfakes, in which words are literally put into the mouths of others, or at least images of them, mean we can no longer believe our eyes. Fake news is widespread, and travels much faster than the truth. In this session we call on the public health community to recognize the threat that these developments pose and to acquire the skills necessary to combat them. How do we recognize fake news? How do we discover who is spreading it, and why? And how do we frame our messages so they don’t backfire? Introduced by an investigative journalist who has done more than almost anyone else to expose the scale and nature of interference in political processes, we ask public health professionals from around the world to reflect on what we need to do.

Plenary 2: The Earth: A Strategy for Survival

We have now entered the Anthropocene era, where for the first time, humans are changing the earth in which we live. Our emissions of carbon dioxide are driving up global temperatures, our exploitation of the environment is destroying biodiversity, our reckless use of chemicals threatens the insects on which we depend to pollinate crops, and our irresponsible use of antibiotics is fueling the rise of antimicrobial resistance. In this session we ask people from different backgrounds how we can work together to tackle what is rapidly becoming a threat to the survival of humans and the creatures with whom we share this planet.

Plenary 3: Leading the way to a healthier world

The public health community worldwide is looking for leadership but too often is failing to find it. We need individuals who can inspire, motivate, and influence those who can promote health and who can confront those who undermine it. What does public health leadership look like? Where will that leadership come from? How do we create and sustain a new generation of leaders? How do we support potential leaders who face barriers based on their gender, nationality, ethnicity, or other characteristics?

Plenary 4: The Digital Information Revolution

Today, we carry on our persons far greater computing power that would have been imaginable even two decades ago. The information we can access can empower individuals and communities, providing knowledge that would once have been inaccessible. It offers us choices that they could never have imagined. But those who write the algorithms and who own the data have power beyond imagination. They often know more about us than we know about ourselves. This revolution in information has the potential to improve health and equity but equally to undermine it. Do we have the tools to understand these processes, especially as many of them are effectively invisible? What actions can we take to maximise the benefits and minimize the threats?

Plenary 5: Health systems fit for the future: promoting better health, economic growth, and social cohesion

High quality, sustainable health systems are essential to enhance health and wealth and to achieve societal well-being. High quality health systems include not only the right to quality health-care but also equity. Evidence-based, cost-effective investments and rigorous assessment are key to guarantee high quality health systems. How can we improve health, wealth and societal well-being by investing in health systems? Which investments inside and beyond the health system should be performed to increase quality and reduce inequities? How can we guarantee that health systems are sustainable, resilient and accessible?

Plenary 6: Revolutionizing the Public Health Workforce as Agents of Change

The wider public health workforce consists of professions that have the opportunity or ability to positively impact the health and wellbeing of the public through their work, and are not always employed directly in a public health role. These professions can make an impact. Appropriate education and training in public health is key to make public health workforce an agent of change from community to government. Are these professionals aware and ready for this task? How should education and training in public health be updated and integrated in the different curricula? Which professions should be educated and how? What actions should be taken to build knowledge and capacity in public health horizontally?

Plenary 7: Moving out of the silos

We know that we need truly interdisciplinary approaches to analyse the threats to health and to evaluate the effectiveness of responses. Yet we often find difficulty in putting them into practice. Who creates the silos? And for which purpose? What actions do we need to take in the global public health community to promote and sustain interdisciplinary working? And what changes in the wider society do we need to advocate for to make this happen?

Plenary 8: Making the difference

To paraphrase Karl Marx: the scientists have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it. We now know a great deal about the causes of disease, the distribution within the population and the broader socio-economic determinants of health. We also know about what public health interventions are effective. Our problem is that we find it difficult to implement policies at a population level when they often clash with social beliefs, undermine economic interests or challenge political agendas. This is more so in times of major public health crises in which often policy and politics becomes one. The plenary will explore how research and evidence can (and should) play a much bigger role in enabling implementation of public health policy, drawing, in particular, from the experience with addressing the COVID-19 pandemic - the perfect public health storm. Are we effective knowledge brokers ensuring that research is translated into timely, transparent and evidence-informed policy response? Do we have enough understanding of the political economy of decision making and its inbuilt cognitive biases? Are we communicating evidence in policy actionable terms? How do we deal with social media and the ‘infodemics’ phenomenon? The session will be run as a high-level panel debate bringing together four key perspectives from a prestigious research institution, a top scientific journal, the WHO and the public health community. The session will offer ample opportunity to bring in questions and contributions from the participating audience into the debate.