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The Virus Next Time


BRISBANE – As more developed countries begin to feel as though they have made it to the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, two striking realities are coming into view. First, one can clearly see just how vulnerable many developing countries still are to rapidly escalating outbreaks of the type we are witnessing in India. The results of failing to distribute the most effective vaccines equitably and strategically are being laid bare.

Second, with more dangerous and contagious variants continuing to emerge, we do not have the luxury of delaying work toward a new international system for pandemic preparedness and response. We must start that project immediately. And fortunately, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR), chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has just published a blueprint for how to do it.

The question now is whether governments are ready not just to listen but to act. The answer will determine whether we can prevent future epidemics from becoming global catastrophes. I know from my own government’s experience during the 2009 swine flu (H1N1) pandemic that it is crucial to confront these crises with immediate, far-reaching, and coordinated action. Thanks to eight months of work by the IPPR, policymakers now have a comprehensive set of recommendations for transforming how we manage pandemic risks.

Chief among the panel’s proposals is a call for pandemic preparedness and response to be elevated to the highest level of political leadership through a new Global Health Threats Council, which should be based at the United Nations headquarters in New York. The panel has also proposed an International Financing Facility for Pandemic Preparedness and Response to help share the burden in future global health crises. Either through direct contributions or a kind of assessed contribution, this mechanism would fund both ongoing preparedness and rapid-response measures in low- and middle-income countries.

The IPPR has offered the kind of emphatic, dispassionate, and actionable guidance that governments need and – in this case – have demanded through the World Health Organization. Four years ago, the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM, which I chaired) tried to raise the alarm about the growing threat of pandemics in its report Global Pandemics and Global Public Health. We were aghast at the poor state of the global health architecture at a time when cross-border health crises were becoming more frequent and posing unprecedented risks. Those risks have since materialized in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to issuing a clear warning, the commission’s report made a series of bold recommendations to strengthen the multilateral system in the face of potential global health crises. Its proposals for clearer rules for verification and early-warning mechanisms have now been echoed in the IPPR’s recommendations, as has its call for a more empowered independent WHO secretariat. We are still waiting for progress on all of these fronts.

We cannot afford to let the IPPR’s report fall on the same deaf ears. And yet, that is exactly what seems to be happening. The 74th World Health Assembly just voted to spend six months studying the panel’s report before even considering taking any action. Such delays are simply unacceptable.

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The COVID-19 crisis has borne out an uncomfortable truth that is emphasized in the IPPR’s report: namely, that many of the national and global institutions established to deal with global pandemics are not fit for purpose, or have not been properly activated. From the moment in late 2019 and early 2020 when the existing International Health Regulations failed, the COVID-19 outbreak became a global catastrophe. And since then, our national and global economic responses have been too slow, tepid, and uncoordinated – a failure that the post-2008 G20 architecture was supposed to prevent.

The current crisis could still become much worse before it gets any better. We are already witnessing a breakdown of global supply chains, which will lead to terrible economic, political, and public-health outcomes. We need to get back on track now so that we can fight not only future pandemics but also this one.

The IPPR’s report could not be timelier. The G7 summit in Cornwall on June 11-13 is an opportunity to concentrate our efforts with backing from the highest political levels. COVID-19 has been costly for all of us. The ICM’s 2017 report anticipated that we would be here one day and identified the solutions we would need to implement. Let us use the IPPR’s findings to enact meaningful reforms and show real leadership so that this pandemic will be the last one to catch us off guard. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021, http://www.project-syndicate.org

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