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Rotary’s second virtual convention highlights accomplishment in polio, progress toward ending COVID-19


Thousands of people experienced friendship and fun at Rotary International’s second straight virtual convention. The event, held 12-16 June 2021, was conducted online after the convention originally planned for Taipei, Taiwan, was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More than 11,000 people registered for the robust program that included more than 20 guest speakers, informational and inspiring breakout sessions, the interactive House of Friendship, and a variety of engaging virtual activities and entertainment. 

During the opening general session, Rotary International President Holger Knaack acknowledged that he was worried about how successful his presidency would be, since he couldn’t visit clubs and projects and provide encouragement and support due to travel restrictions. “But what seemed like a problem turned out to be an advantage,” he said. “By visiting clubs online, I could be everywhere, every day.”

Knaack talked about how rewarding it was to be able to visit clubs and districts around the world in just one day. “In a virtual environment, I could visit a dozen Rotary clubs a week and participate in their projects. It was exciting and rewarding. And I was so proud of the work you did in such difficult times,” he said. 

“The pandemic continues to bring great devastation and, for far too many, a very sad ending for people important to us,” Knaack said. “We must continue to honor those who have passed and do whatever we can to bring this devastation to an end as soon as possible.” 

Despite the challenges of the past year, Knaack also highlighted successes, including the historic announcement that the World Health Organization’s African region had been declared free of the wild poliovirus. He encouraged Rotary to build on that positive news by staying focused on our commitment to ending polio worldwide. Until early May of this year, he said, just two cases of wild poliovirus were reported worldwide. Wild poliovirus is still circulating in only two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gave a video address to online attendees, crediting Rotary for continuing to focus on polio. “When COVID-19 struck, you didn’t abandon your vision of a polio-free world,” he said. “You redoubled your efforts.” 

“The pandemic has highlighted that unprepared and underserved communities anywhere are a threat to health everywhere. Rotarians know this,” Tedros added. “And I want you to know that your investment in public health will inspire future generations to live up to your motto of Service Above Self.”

Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, gave an update on COVID-19 vaccines and spoke about the importance of restoring access to routine vaccinations that were disrupted by the pandemic. 

Berkley said 14 COVID-19 vaccines have been approved around the world and more than 1.4 billion people have been vaccinated in the “largest and most complex vaccine development deployment in history.” Gavi is co-leading COVAX, a worldwide initiative aimed at establishing equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. By the beginning of next year, Berkley said, more than 1.8 billion doses of the vaccine should be available to people living in the 92 lowest-income countries that otherwise would have limited or no access to the vaccine. 

But COVID-19 vaccines aren’t the end of the story.

“Now with COVID-19 vaccines flowing, it’s going to be critical to maintain hard-won gains in immunization,” Berkley said, “to recover from the disruptions caused by COVID-19 and achieve even more by leaving no one behind in any situation or at any stage of life.” 

He added, “As a valued partner of Gavi, Rotary International will play a key role in all this.”

Other convention guests and speakers included: 

  • Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the WHO director-general 
  • Eliud Kipchoge, an Olympic gold medalist and marathon world-record holder
  • Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist and founder of the Rise Up Movement 
  • Anna Rosling Rönnlund, vice president of the Gapminder foundation 
  • Sanj Srikanthan, the CEO of ShelterBox 

The general sessions were hosted by Mark Wright, a news anchor and Rotary member. 

Entertainment included performances by The Filharmonic, an a cappella group featured in the hit movie Pitch Perfect 2; the Hiplet Ballerinas, a hip-hop and classical ballet fusion group; Idris Goodwin, a breakbeat poet and a United States Artists Fellow; and DDC Breakdance, a Germany-based dance group. 

Convention attendees participated in virtual activities that included a cooking class, a trivia challenge, a dance party, a virtual photo booth, and a 5K walk to raise funds to end polio. 

View convention videos and photos

Speeches and reports 

RI President Holger Knaack’s opening and closing speeches

RI President-elect Shekhar Mehta’s speech (PDF)

RI President-nominee Jennifer Jones’ speech (PDF)

Rotary Foundation Chair K.R. Ravindran’s speech (PDF)

General Secretary John Hewko’s speech (PDF)

General secretary’s report to the convention

RI treasurer’s report to the convention (PDF)


    Retired doctors in Finland vaccinate thousands against COVID-19

    RI director and PolioPlus national advocacy adviser are responsible for an estimated 50% of vaccinations in their region


    As news began circulating in Finland in early January that COVID-19 vaccines could soon be approved, the nation’s health authorities cautioned an excited public that it would take time to distribute the vaccine supply and train enough people to administer them.

    Retired doctors Matti and Virpi Honkala learned about the potential shortage of vaccinators and contacted their region’s medical director to volunteer their services in Raahe and the surrounding area.

    “There was such a buzz and everyone wanted to get going right way,” says Virpi, a Rotary International director and member of the Rotary Club of Raahe who previously worked as a surgeon and medical director. Her husband, Matti, Rotary’s PolioPlus national advocacy adviser for Finland and a member of the Rotary club of Pietari Brahe, had been a chief of internal medicine. Both are still licensed to practice medicine.

    “We knew that if they had a shortage of vaccinators, they would have to pull people from their other duties, and then those services would be put on hold,” Virpi says. “We knew we could step in wherever needed.”

    Both Virpi and Matti have experience managing vaccination campaigns. During the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 (also known as swine flu), they oversaw the inoculation of nearly 1,000 health care workers prior to the mass vaccination of the general population.

    “We have been retired for some years, but we still know how to vaccinate people,” says Virpi.

      Eager vaccinators

      By the end of April, the Honkalas had vaccinated more than 5,000 people in Raahe and two smaller municipalities nearby — accounting for about half of the vaccinations in their region, by Virpi’s estimate.

      In these three communities, about a quarter of the people, including almost all of those 75 and older, have received a first dose of the vaccine. People 60 and older were able to make appointments as of May.

      “Two eager vaccinators can do quite a lot,” Matti says.

      People have been excited and feel relieved about the vaccine rollout. “They are happy,” Virpi says. “And they are so grateful.”

      Virpi was keen to get their Rotary clubs involved in the effort, and Matti wanted to promote the importance of vaccines.

      “We said, this could be our Rotary project, and our project for our community,” Virpi says. “We know how eager Rotary members are to promote vaccinations, whether it’s against COVID-19 or polio.”

      Members of both Rotary clubs volunteered to act as ushers and park cars at vaccination sites. Rotary club members played a crucial role directing people in and out of a closed school that was converted to a vaccination center. Virpi says staff members were thrilled to have the help, because the school layout was more complicated than the setup at other vaccine locations.

      Vaccination strategy

      Finland’s ministry of health sets the country’s vaccination strategy. The Pfizer vaccine, the first that became available in Finland, has to be kept at around -70°C (-94°F), so a cold chain must be maintained for doses to remain effective.

      Vaccine doses are packed in large containers filled with dry ice and flown from a pharmaceutical factory to Helsinki, Finland’s capital. The doses are then distributed to regions according to their population and their needs. Each region’s medical director and nursing staff schedule vaccination appointments as doses become available, and university hospitals distribute vaccine batches to municipalities. The vaccines for the Raahe region come from a university hospital about 75 km (47 miles) away.

      In early January, the Honkalas were vaccinating mostly front-line health care workers. Then in February, they assisted with vaccinations in nursing homes and retirement communities. As supplies increased, the Honkalas began providing vaccinations several days a week, including at the hospital in Raahe and at smaller clinics in the two neighboring towns.

      “At first we had only shorter days,” Virpi says. “The nurses in charge of scheduling set up one appointment every 10 minutes. I think they thought because of our age, we would be slow. I have never spent so much time walking corridors! Then, they realized we could do more and increased the pace to two every five minutes.”

      Virpi says the vaccination effort has been a welcome relief from the isolation of the pandemic.

      “We are seeing and meeting our neighbors, our work colleagues, and former patients as they come in for their vaccinations,” she says. “It’s really amazing. As a surgeon, I never saw people much after their operations — only if something went wrong. Now, I am seeing people who remember that I operated on them as many as 30 years ago, sharing how well they have been doing since.”

      Combatting misinformation

      Matti says he has also been working to fight vaccine misinformation and hesitancy, drawing on years of experience with the polio campaign. He finds opportunities to talk to people while they are waiting, using his knowledge as a polio advocacy specialist to speak about the power and efficacy of vaccines.

      In Europe, he says, there are pockets of distrust, and rumors can spread easily based on a rare case. For instance, after the AstraZeneca vaccine was paused because of some reports of blood clots, he found that more people came in expressing concern about which vaccine they were receiving.

      Virpi says she also uses humor to allay people’s concerns.

      “One of the men yesterday asked me, ‘Which did you inject me with?’ I told him, ‘All of them. And I will be able to follow you with the gadgets I have,’” she quipped.

      Having administered more than 5,000 vaccinations, Virpi suggested to her husband that they could stop after they reached 10,000 and let others do the rest.

      “But,” she says, “he said, ‘When we have done the first 10,000, then we can start the second.’”

      • 5,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses administered by Virpi and Matti Honkalas
      • 25% population of the Raahe region who had received at least one vaccine dose by the end of April
      • -70°C recommended storage temperature for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine
      Rotary Spotlight

      2022 Rotary International Convention in Houston

      The event will bring more than 20,000 participants from around the world and deliver $30 million in local economic impact

      HOUSTON (July 22, 2021) – During a joint news conference held at George R. Brown Convention Center today, Rotary and Houston First Corporation representatives announced that more than 20,000 service-minded people from around the world will gather in Houston for Rotary’s 113th annual international convention on June 4-8, 2022.

      The coveted international event is returning to Houston for the third time, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1972 international convention. The Bayou City also hosted the 5th Rotary convention in 1914. The event is expected to deliver $30 million in economic impact for the city’s hotels, restaurants, retailers and attractions.

      “As a global membership organization that brings people from all continents and cultures together to share, learn and take action to bring positive and lasting change to communities around the world, we are thrilled that our first in-person international convention since 2019 will take place in Houston,” said Rotary’s International President Shekhar Mehta. “And for the first time ever, our annual event will be open to members of the public who want to connect, learn and be a part of our work to grow and change lives.”

      Rotary’s 2022 international convention will transform the George R. Brown Convention Center into an energized hub and cultural mosaic as the organization’s global network of volunteers gather to share information about all the ways they are taking action to address issues in their communities, to learn from notable experts, gain inspiration from world-class speakers, and connect with lifelong friends shaped through service.

      Previous convention speakers include philanthropist Bill Gates; actor and philanthropist Ashton Kutcher; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; actor, producer, host, entrepreneur, WWE Superstar and Rotary polio ambassador, John Cena; renowned primatologist Jane Goodall; and former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young.

      Organized by Rotary International in conjunction with the Houston Host Organization Committee of local Rotary members, registrants of the convention will also experience Houston’s hospitality with visits to local destinations  like Space Center Houston, Kemah Boardwalk and one of Houston’s premiere shopping destinations, The Galleria. Click here to register for Rotary’s International Convention.

      “Houston and Houston First Corporation are thrilled to host Rotary’s International Convention next summer,” said Jorge Franz, Senior Vice President Tourism and Industry Relations at Houston First Corporation & Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau’s president. “We look forward to welcoming the thousands of awesome Rotary members who through their volunteerism and commitment to problem-solving make our communities better from continent to continent. This global exposure to 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide will further elevate Houston as a travel destination, and the anticipated $30 million economic impact from the convention will be a financial shot in the arm for Houston hotels, restaurants, retailers, attractions and many more.”

      Houston Host Organization Committee chair, Rhonda Kennedy, representing 62 Houston-area clubs and its 2,400 members, said, “as a proud member of the Rotary Club of Sweeny, I am excited not only to welcome our fellow members from around the world to our beloved city, but also to show how Houston-area clubs are taking action to make the world a better place at home and abroad.”

      With the safety and wellbeing of participants and the wider community a top priority, Rotary’s previous two conventions were held virtually due to the global pandemic. Speaking during the press conference, John Smarge, chair of Rotary’s International Convention Committee, said, “this convention will also have a virtual component to make the event accessible to all members. And as we continue our planning, we will work closely with global and national health authorities to ensure that our in-person event follows the most current health and safety guidelines.”

      About Rotary: Rotary brings together a global network of volunteer leaders dedicated to tackling the world’s most pressing humanitarian challenges. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 36,000 Rotary clubs in over 200 countries and geographical areas. Their work improves lives at both the local and international levels, from helping those in need in their own communities to working toward a polio-free world.For more information, visit Rotary.org

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