Steps to take to combat future pandemics


Early days: A Jan 25, 2020, view of a roadblock stopping people from leaving Wuhan as the world began focusing on a spiralling viral outbreak. The UN should consider setting up a global agency to facilitate prompt action should such a crisis re-emerge in the future. — AFP

It is encouraging to know that the World Health Organisation (WHO) is sending a mission to Wuhan, China, where the Covid-19 virus first emerged to review and assess the reasons for this pandemic, and that China has endorsed this mission.

Never before had the world been confronted with such a critical and desperate situation as Covid-19 spread globally with alarming intensity and incredible magnitude towards the end of 2019. While the much-awaited vaccines have provided some hope, further time and evidence is required to fathom their long-term effectiveness and their overall impact in combating the virus.

The discovery of new variants of the virus compounds current complexities, but it is expected that the available vaccines will also effectively confront the new variants. Researchers tested the effectiveness of the vaccines against variants with different mutations, and it has been confirmed that the current vaccine-induced immune response is effective against the variants also.

Substantive outcomes should further be visible within the next few months. However, despite the effectiveness of vaccines, the process of combating and eliminating Covid-19 may require continued and comprehensive focus and efforts. The WHO could prioritise advanced research and build up on the experiences in handling previous viruses with similar symptoms, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and Ebola. Having the Covid-19 vaccines on board within a year of the breakout reflects strong potential for advanced medical research to meet emergency requirements.

For over a year, the world has been going through extreme uncertainties and a transition towards the erosion of gains achieved through globalisation and market expansion. Should the virus be around for longer, the world may head further towards shrinking trade and businesses, declining growth and prolonged recession. Declines in employment and incomes may lead to the contraction of key sectors of growth. In such a scenario, countries may have to bear budget deficits and shift further towards increased external borrowing. Bilateral and multilateral financing institutions will be required to spare significant volumes of resources beyond country partnership allocations to enable countries to overcome growing deficits and fulfil the need for resources to finance development priorities. These trends may propel a revision of the Sustainable Development Goals' (SDGs) key targets and indicators.

(The SDGs are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly that are designed to be a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all".)

With regard to the WHO's investigative mission to China, this should have been undertaken earlier. However, better late than never. There is a need to undertake extensive and transparent investigations into what sparked Covid-19 and the factors that resulted in its destructive spread all over the world. United Nations secretary-general António Guterres wanted to convene a meeting of the Security Council in April last year to discuss the pandemic. However, this was reportedly vetoed by one of the permanent members of the Security Council.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom expressed his optimism that the fact-finding mission to Wuhan will be able to work closely with their Chinese counterparts to identify the virus’ origin and its introduction to the human population. The WHO and China have reportedly agreed on the terms of reference, focus and process of the investigation. There is reason to expect this is a positive approach and it should erase hypothetical assumptions.

Despite the cautious optimism and obvious scepticism regarding the outcome of the WHO mission to China, there may be justifiable reason to believe that this would be the beginning of a credible process. The findings of the mission should enable the world to gather significant clues to unanswered questions relating to the pandemic. The international community looks forward to the WHO's conclusions and actions based on their recommendations.

Irrespective of the outcomes of the WHO mission, it could be relevant and useful for research institutions and medical research centres, and even independent NGOs working on medicare research, to explore intensively for further details of and insights into the key causes and circumstances that triggered the pandemic. This would enable broader understanding, clarity and transparency in the whole investigation process. This will also stimulate further focused and effective interventions based on the findings, and important lessons will be derived so that in future, such circumstances could be avoided or handled more effectively at the outset to prevent such a fast spread.

The other important perspective in the medium-term would be for the UN to set up a commission for determining an upgraded mandate with broader technical support for the WHO. This is aimed at facilitating and promoting the WHO's advanced research and strengthening its functional alignment with national and regional health institutions and centres. The UN may also assess whether the roles and functions of the WHO remain relevant in the current context, or whether a new specialised institution would be necessary to address such unusual challenges to human health and safety in future. In this context, the restructuring and realignment of the WHO may be a pragmatic option for consideration.

In addition, the UN may consider setting up a Global Pandemic Research Institute or Global Virus and Infectious Disease Control Centre. These initiatives should facilitate prompt and proactive actions and effective responses should such a crisis re-emerge in future. The UN could find it useful to stimulate private investment and promote public-private partnerships for expanding health infrastructure and research, with a view to gearing up functional efficiency of international health mechanisms.

Simultaneously, there is a need to prioritise addressing governance issues, especially the institutional bottlenecks and management-related deficiencies that impede the efficiency of global health institutions. An increased share of the health sector to GDP should also aim at strengthening strategic thrusts and efficiently implementing programmes, as well as overall stakeholder buy-in and engagement.

For mitigating the impact of the virus, the UN may consider an emergency post-covid recovery fund on extremely concessional terms, and support countries in meeting trade and budget deficits, rises in poverty and unemployment, and economic stagnation.

Reforms in international health mechanisms will only bear effective results if adequate provisions are in place to ensure the speedy and simultaneous access of all countries (irrespective of stages and levels of development) to available vaccines and required medicare benefits. Vaccine access and coverage for all citizens should be a core priority in line with the SDGs principle of "Leaving no one behind". Production rollout and distribution mechanisms should concentrate on comprehensive availability, access and cost-effectiveness.

Another dimension that warrants priority attention at this stage relates to broadened international collaboration on improved health surveillance and monitoring, accountability and disclosure. Had these elements been given due focus, the impact of the pandemic could have been less. Supportive legal frameworks and provisions under the UN umbrella will strengthen accountability to prevent and detect negligence and lapses, which ultimately cause immense human suffering and losses.

Regional cooperation and integration frameworks could also propel avenues to promote such initiatives. NGOs and civil society organisations need to come forward to extend assistance to national and international initiatives in this regard. Substantive community engagement could add value to the much-required awareness of risks and vulnerabilities, and add momentum to endeavours in effectively combating such pandemics in the future. – The Daily Star/Asia News Network

Economist and governance specialist Dr Mohammed Parvez Imdad is currently engaged in research, teaching and advisory assignments. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's.

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