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Our Five Words of the Year 2023

2023 Our Five Words of the Year EN

We've chosen five words that strongly resonated throughout 2023 and are particularly relevant to global health.


Every year, the world’s leading dictionaries announce their “word of the year”. For example, Oxford University Press’s word for 2023 is rizz – an abbreviation for charisma coined by Gen Z-ers, meaning style, charm or attractiveness. So for this year’s post, with the help of my fantastic comms colleagues, I’ve chosen five words that strongly resonated throughout 2023 and are particularly relevant to global health. They may not have much charm, but they have definitely become part of our daily conversations.


This new word describes the current state of the world - we are now in a permanent crisis due to environmental, economic, and political problems. Similarly, the term polycrisis, which refers to many different problems happening at the same time and that together have a very big effect, was used extensively at the World Economic Forum this year to describe the interplay between the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, the rising inflation rates and the food shortages. Add to this the Israel-Hamas war, with more than 1,000 Israeli casualties and over 14,000 Palestinians (many of them children) killed by air and artillery strikes in Gaza, where healthcare is collapsed due to repeated attacks on medical facilities. There is obviously a strong connection between all these crises, but there is no doubt that the climate emergency, together with biodiversity loss, is the most important challenge of our time and should be our top priority. Never before have we had so much knowledge or technology to deal with it. It’s a matter of collective will. Controlling inflation or resolving conflicts will be meaningless if we cannot guarantee a livable planet for all. Which brings us to the next words.


Definitely not a new word, but one that has broken many records this year. 2023 has been the hottest year ever registered. Its summer was the hottest on Earth since global records began in 1880, with many consecutive days above 45ºC in Europe, Japan, and southern USA. This has a clear impact on human health: an estimated 70,000 heat-related deaths occurred in Europe in the summer of 2022 (which was less hot than 2023). Autumn in the Northern hemisphere was also the warmest on record, with almost one degree Celsius above the average. And ocean temperatures were not an exception: they remained at record highs, amplified by El Niño conditions. On several occasions this year air temperatures reached 1.5ºC above the pre-industrial average, the limit to which 196 countries committed to in the Paris Agreement of 2015. Staying within this limit was the ‘North Star’ that many leaders, starting with UAE President Syltan al-Jaber, alluded to in their speeches at the recent COP28, but once again failed to secure (we would need to reduce CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, and phase out all fossil fuels by 2035 at the latest).


These words were at the heart of the debate at the COP28, which was hosted by a petro-state (UAE) whose president declared that “there is no science behind the idea that phasing out fossil fuels is what’s going to achieve 1.5C.” UN Secretary-General Guterres was quick to correct him: “The science is clear: the 1.5 limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce, not abate. Phase out, with a clear timeframe.” The text that finally came out of Dubai calls on countries to “transition away from fossil fuels ... so as to achieve net zero by 2050”. Good direction, but not fast enough. The conference did have some highlights, though, such as the landmark agreement on the Loss and Damage Fund, whereby the most developed and polluting nations provide financial support to developing countries that are already bearing the brunt. Another milestone was the first-ever Health Day at a climate summit, in recognition of the “growing burden of climate change on healthcare systems” and of the health benefits of tackling climate change. “We shouldn’t measure success on climate change by degrees averted, but by lives saved,” said Vanessa Kerry, WHO’s Special Envoy for Climate Change and Health. The health meeting also pledged $777 million to fight neglected tropical diseases, which are expected to worsen as temperatures rise.


The COVID-19 pandemic was the warning the world needed that we need to be better prepared for future health crises. But preparing for multiple health threats is complex. It requires collaboration across disciplines (from virologists and veterinarians to epidemiologists and climate scientists) and sectors (from health and agriculture to pharma industry and tourism). As a result, there has been more talk than action. Lately, however, progress has been made. WHO member states continue working on a treaty to strengthen global pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, and are making amendments to the International Health Regulations. In addition, several countries have put in place surveillance programmes to keep an eye on SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory pathogens, such as testing and gathering data from travellers at airports rather than denying them entry, or screening wastewater from incoming flights. And, through its exemplary pathogen genomics surveillance work, the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) in South Africa is now a key player in the Global South’s capacity to detect and control epidemics. The highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza which is affecting not only birds but also mammals around the world is a threat we should definitely be preparing for.


AI was on everyone’s lips this year with the launch of ChatGpt and other AI-powered tools. It was the Collins Word of the Year 2023, and the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) word for 2022. It is one of the most revolutionary technologies of the 21st century and will change almost every aspect of our lives. In health, it has the potential to revolutionise healthcare, for example by enabling early diagnosis, personalising treatment options, or predicting disease outbreaks. It can also help underserved communities through remote patient monitoring. But the reliance on algorithms and data can also exacerbate existing health disparities, raise privacy issues, and lead to the misuse of sensitive information. Worryingly, it may help generate and spread disinformation, aided by deepfake imagery. Where AI takes us will largely depend on how we regulate it. In this sense, the EU’s recently approved bill to ensure AI is safe and respects fundamental rights and democracy, is good news and worth reading in detail.


Finally, I would like to add a word that has been with me throughout the year: impact. Understanding what it means invites those of us who work in global health to rethink why and how we do what we do. If our efforts contribute to improving the health or well-being of all people, based on their needs, then we can say ‘rizz’ as we raise our glasses to the coming year!