The world can’t handle ‘pandemic fatigue’

IPredictably, right now leaders may want to focus on anything but pandemics. More than three years have passed since the onset of COVID-19, people are tired of its toll and most lockdowns and other restrictions have been lifted.

But to continue would be a terrible mistake. Failure to prepare now for the next pandemic puts the entire world at risk of more deaths and economic losses. It is now that the investments of time and money required to minimize these risks are modest.

So far, the world has not applied the lessons from COVID-19, as well as other outbreaks such as swine flu, bird flu and Ebola. We know it’s a matter of when, not if, the next pandemic will happen, but we remain dangerously ill-prepared.

And it’s not like we don’t know what can be done. Reports from groups such as the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which I co-chaired with former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, and the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board have offered clear recommendations for strengthening international resilience and response. systems and institutions to such threats.

The problem lies in the chronic failure of political will by our leaders, particularly those in the prosperous states of the Global North. Their short-term approach to dealing with COVID-19 has exacerbated the pandemic’s impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people – particularly in terms of vaccine production and distribution – and has been counterproductive to the interests of their own people. They ignored the central lesson of dealing with pandemics: no one is safe until everyone is safe.

A course correction is needed to avoid future disasters and stop the erosion of trust among those who feel abandoned by the rich world in their time of need. This outbreak highlighted how quickly systems can fail – and how infectious diseases know no borders.

I know from personal experience how critical principled and practical leadership is in times of crisis. In 2014, I was president of Liberia during the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Ebola taught me that leadership is not only about taking control and making decisions that may not always be popular, but also about empowering others to act. It also taught me that global solidarity is essential. In October 2014, I wrote a letter to the world begging for help. A massive mobilization of resources led by the United Nations followed. Ebola has just spread beyond West Africa. Together we beat it.

It was crazy to see how little the world learned from Ebola in terms of dealing with COVID-19. Further complacency and “pandemic fatigue” will only lead to widening gaps in the global pandemic preparedness and response agenda.

I fear that, in the face of the next pandemic, if we take the same inconsistent, ineffective and inequitable approach as we did with COVID-19, we risk not only a major global health threat but also an economic, political and security disaster.

The Independent Commission she co-chairs in 2021 called for coordinated political leadership, national preparedness, new funding, fit-for-purpose surveillance systems, clear rules governing early warnings and global warnings, a more robustly funded World Health Organization and, crucially, a system that ensures people everywhere have access to tests, vaccines and treatments.

To make these reforms happen, a new approach is needed. The Elders – the group of former world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, of which I am a member – are working to secure strong global political leadership from heads of state and government on pandemic preparedness and response, transforming pandemic financing and a clear commitment to put equality and human rights at the heart of the pandemic agenda. To these ends, we support the creation of a Global Health Threats Council, a body that would rightfully raise this issue to the highest political levels, following the whole-of-society approach that such a threat requires.

2023 should not be remembered as the year the world walked away from COVID, but rather as the year world leaders seized the opportunity to apply lessons from the past to ensure a healthier future.

A number of developments offer hope for bold and transformative change: the recently launched World Bank Pandemic Fund promises to provide critical pandemic financing to low- and middle-income countries; negotiations are underway at the WHO for a new agreement on pandemics. the WHO is also working to strengthen the International Health Regulations governing cross-border public health emergencies; and a UN High-Level Summit on Pandemics will be held in September.

But these initiatives will not succeed unless major economies fully buy into their markets — both with funding and political will. It is encouraging that leaders in Japan, which will host the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May, are seeking to highlight global pandemic preparedness and responses as a vital element of human security. The G7 and G20 peers must support this and collectively raise their ambitions.

Liberia was caught off guard when Ebola hit us in 2014, as were many countries when COVID-19 hit. Today it is clear what needs to be done in order not to be surprised and to effectively manage the next pandemic. To squander this opportunity would be an unforgivable betrayal of present and future generations.

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