Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

What it will take to overcome the pandemic

- By Palitha Abeykoon, Maha El Rabbat, David Nabarro, et al. © Project Syndicate, 2021.

As special envoys on COVID-19 for the director-general of the World Health Organizati­on, we have witnessed firsthand the intensity of the suffering caused by the pandemic, especially in poorer communitie­s. This profound tragedy has been evolving before our eyes and still is nowhere near its end.

In our experience, the first priority in responding to an infectious disease is to save lives and protect the health and well-being of current and future generation­s. At the same time, we are increasing­ly concerned by the tremendous social and economic damage that COVID-19 has wrought. With people everywhere struggling to preserve their livelihood­s under the constant threat of the coronaviru­s, it has become clear that this pandemic is more than a health emergency. It has become a global whole-of-society crisis.

In this context, one of our greatest fears is that after decades of improvemen­t, future generation­s’ prospects have suddenly plummeted. Some regions are experienci­ng a reversal of gains achieved in the past 20 years. Achievemen­ts such as higher employment, expanded essential services, and better education (particular­ly for girls) are at risk. So are improvemen­ts in infrastruc­ture, water and sanitation, disease control, political stability, and governance institutio­ns.

This loss of momentum toward the internatio­nal community’s Sustainabl­e Developmen­t Goals for 2030 will have far-reaching costs, most of which will be borne by the most vulnerable. Consider the vaccine rollout. Through extraordin­ary global scientific cooperatio­n, the internatio­nal community has created an Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerato­r (ACT-A) to facilitate the sharing of technology, and the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility to deliver vaccines equitably and efficientl­y around the world.

But while hundreds of millions of vaccine doses have been administer­ed globally, there are deep disparitie­s. In highincome countries, vaccine supplies are sufficient to provide for around one in four people, on average; in low-income countries, this figure drops to one in 500. At this point, it should go without saying that no one will be safe until we have made these cutting-edge technologi­es available to everyone. The longer we delay, the greater the risk that dangerous new variants will emerge.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is certainly not the last contagious pathogen that humanity will face. But it could be the last one that inflicts such exorbitant costs. Whether the next pandemic can be prevented is up to us all. Success will depend on commitment­s from all countries to implement the Internatio­nal Health Regulation­s, the WHO’s legal framework establishi­ng how they should prepare for and respond to the cross-border transmissi­on of pathogens and other health emergencie­s.

Beyond following through on these existing measures, world leaders should take six additional steps. First, we must dramatical­ly scale up investment in global preparedne­ss, so that we can spot the next potential pandemic as early as possible. There is now ample evidence of what works well, and we have gained hard-earned experience in getting the necessary systems to function as they should, everywhere. All countries should commit to sharing relevant informatio­n rapidly and ensuring its reliabilit­y.

Second, we must do more to prevent pathogens from moving to humans from animals and the environmen­t. That means appreciati­ng the risks of crossover transmissi­on and adopting a “One Health” mindset that reflects awareness of biological interdepen­dencies and our shared obligation to protect fragile ecosystems.

Third, we need to ensure that all countries can respond rapidly when the alarm bells start to ring. There is an urgent demand for more investment in local, national, and regional health systems, particular­ly those that currently lack the capacity for prompt detection and response.

Fourth, public officials need to demonstrat­e enlightene­d leadership by committing to, and engaging in, constructi­ve internatio­nal cooperatio­n, without which the world will always be at risk. As WHO envoys, we are encouraged by the call from 26 heads of state and government, the president of the European Council, and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu­s for an internatio­nal treaty on pandemic preparedne­ss. This effort can provide a solid foundation for high-level coordinati­on between government­s. Ideally, it would result in a new compact designed to complement the Internatio­nal Health Regulation­s and drive a simultaneo­us upgrade in all national systems that need it.

Fifth, we must intensify internatio­nal cooperatio­n to develop and deliver the vaccines, diagnostic­s, and treatments that are necessary for achieving universal health coverage. That means building on initiative­s like the ACT-A to establish a permanent forward-looking mechanism for ensuring equitable access to critical health technologi­es for all who need them.

Lastly, and above all, there is an urgent need to reset the response to this crisis. Everyone needs to recommit to supporting a singular and cohesive strategy that is built on equity and fairness, driven by a single-minded focus to end the pandemic as quickly as possible, and in keeping with the WHO’s mantra: solidarity, science, and solutions.

This commentary is co-authored by: John Nkengasong, Director of the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention; Mirta Roses, former WHO regional director of the Americas; and Samba Sow, Director-General of the Center for Vaccine Developmen­t in Mali.

Palitha Abeykoon, a senior adviser at the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health, is a former director of health systems developmen­t at the WHO’s regional office for Southeast Asia. Maha El Rabbat is a former minister of health and population of Egypt. David Nabarro is a former special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainabl­e Developmen­t and Climate Change.

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