Health Policy

Make this the last pandemic? Easier said than done…

By - World Healthcare Journal

Make this the last pandemic? Easier said than done...

As Ben Howlett, Managing Director of Public Policy Projects writes, future pandemics are inevitable if governments continue to pursue nationalistic prevention policies.

The independent panel for pandemic preparedness and response published its timely report, COVID-19: Make it the last pandemic earlier this year. Co-chaired by former New Zealand premier, Rt Hon Helen Clark and former Liberian President, HE Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the World Health Organization (WHO)-commissioned report reviewed experiences gained and lessons learned from the WHO-co-ordinated international health response to Covid-19.

The report has been widely welcomed. However, the provocative title’s ambition to “make this the last pandemic” is wildly unachievable given the nationalistic approach by countries to learn the lessons of this pandemic.

The report collected evidence on everything from the effectiveness of mechanisms at the WHO’s disposal to the contribution to United Nations (UN)-wide efforts. The independent panel made recommendations on how to improve capacity for global pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. The panel, including former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, concluded that there is a need to strengthen the WHO Health Emergencies Programme. Pragmatists among us, who have worked around the WHO and UN for many years, will realise that calling for strengthened powers for multilateral organisations that have reduced in relevance over the years is not going to make this the last pandemic.

International splits hindering progress

Despite countries such as the US now heralding that they are “back at the table”, after the turbulence of the Trump presidency, the relevance of the UN and WHO is still in doubt. While the Trump administration was wrong to withdraw support from the WHO and threaten cuts to UN funding, it is clear that these institutions need fundamental reform before they can be taken seriously as mechanisms to end future pandemics.

For decades, the UN Security Council has split between China and Russia on one side and the US and UK on the other, each exercising their veto when their national interests and that of their allies are challenged. Given that this virus originated in China, expect further splits between the blocks and thus delays to the implementation of the independent panel’s report.

The lack of respect for the WHO was compounded at the G7 earlier this month. Laudable commitments to supply the world with one billion Covid vaccine doses over the next year were made.

However, the world’s richest nations failed to recognise their call for 11 billion doses to be distributed around the world. The Carbis Bay G7 Communiqué stated a commitment to produce “the appropriate frameworks to strengthen our collective defences against threats to global health by: increasing and coordinating on global manufacturing capacity on all continents; improving early warning systems; and support science in a mission to shorten the cycle for the development of safe and effective vaccines, treatments and tests from 300 to 100 days”. Where was the explicit commitment from the G7 to co-ordinated through the WHO or UN?

To take one of the commitments made at the G7 on increased collaboration on global manufacturing capacity, the experience of the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout shows the weakness of multilateral institutions.

Where was the UN or WHO in mediating between the French, German and UK Governments over vaccine supply across the continent? These three countries are supposed to be allies. However, they have demonstrated the complexity of global manufacturing capacity co-ordination. Yes, countries can work bilaterally, but multilateral institutions with credibility are required to ensure effective delivery of that policy. As it stands, there seems little appetite from national governments to work through an international body, such as the UN or WHO, and thus the mission to make this the last pandemic is going to be challenging.

As nations look to hold their own pandemic related inquires, there appears to be little appetite for countries to work together to learn lessons on a global scale

What have we learned?

There is an obvious missed opportunity from the G7. There were no real commitments for nations to work together to learn the lessons of the pandemic. As nations look to hold their own pandemic related inquires, there appears to be little appetite for countries to work together to learn lessons on a global scale.

The UK will continue to hold its inquiry next year and France, Germany, Japan etc will all working to their own timescales with no real collaboration or joint working. Pandemics are global by nature, there will be many more in future years as the world becomes ever more globalised. Treatments, border controls and vaccine development will be features of all national pandemic inquiries from the US to South Korea.

To maximise the effectiveness of national pandemic inquiries, it is critical for countries to work together and hold joint inquiries. The WHO report is a good start. However, there is no way that we can make this the last pandemic without countries working together to learn together.

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