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2021 Debate Insights

Risking Repeat: The Urgency of Better Pandemic Preparedness

Author: Sciences Po student Thomas Singbeh summarizes the debate session of the fourth edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Date: 11 November 2021

Risking Repeat: The Urgency of Better Pandemic Preparedness

At the fourth edition of the Paris Peace Forum, the session:  “Risking Repeat: The Urgency of Better Pandemic Preparedness” was geared towards discussing policy perspectives on effective preparation mechanisms to prevent future occurrences of pandemics with disproportionate mortalities; drawing lessons from the current Covid crisis. With the rising mutation of the SARS II covid virus and the continuous panic, information asymmetry,  uncertainties, policy confusion, institutional failures, political wranglings, and the politics of vaccine skepticism and nationalism, there have been considerable arguments that the world was less prepared and is still less collective in its approach to confronting the situation. An important concern involves understanding the role and efforts of both global health leaders and political stakeholders in ensuring a comprehensive, coordinated and effective response that targets potential health vulnerabilities without leaving low-income states behind.

From early virus detection systems to universal healthcare coverage, highlighting the significance of a collective partnership of a cross-section of different actors: the World Health Organization (WHO), civil society, NGOs, researchers, governments, the media, citizens and health care workers, the cruciality of adopting a multidimensional approach to addressing untold human suffering and the inestimable social and economic backlashes heaped by the Covid pandemic cannot be underestimated. The panelists for this session included high profile leaders from the health, political, and social sectors: Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus- Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Christian Happi- Director of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, Charles Michel- President of the European Council, Anja Langenbucher- Director, Europe Office of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Jeremy Farrar- Director of Wellcome Trust.

In a serious reminder, Dr. Ghebreyesus in his inaugural comments condemned vaccine inequality as “epidemiologically, economically, and morally wrong”. He added that with the rapid development of vaccines, the major obstacle to effective global progress is no longer technological or medical, but rather a sheer lack of political will. With over 250 million Covid cases reported since 2019 and an average present global death rate of 7,000 per day, the pandemic is still far from over. Moreover, the WHO leader lamented that G20 countries, with about an 80% vaccination coverage rate, are still reluctant in sharing doses with Africa, which lags far behind at a shocking 5%.  This lack of ‘political will and courage’ leads the world nowhere and increasingly hampers effort to reach WHO global targets, he continued. This comes after several vociferous calls by African leaders at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 2021) criticizing Western nations of vaccine nationalism, or the hoarding of vaccines by controlling the supply chain and manufacturer’s action for the self-seeking national goal of securing predominant national supply.

For Michel, “health is a crucial issue” and “greater cooperation leads to greater equity.” He conceded that the EU recognizes the apparent vaccine injustice, and is very committed to mobilizing for the distribution of more doses. He noted that under the COVAX initiative, the EU has already galvanized over 3 billion vaccine doses and is prepared to do more in the spirit of global cooperation to end the pandemic. Additionally, he observed that the poor responses from government leaders to the pandemic can partly be attributed to the paucity of relevant health information needed to make the right policies. The institution of ‘legally binding [Covid Health] information’ is critical for accelerating global cooperation, Michel argued.

However, Farrar held that the Covid crisis “is highlighting a tension between domestic politics and international self-interest” that needs to be bridged. While increased financing and vaccine distribution is indispensable, sustainable measures such as learning from the Ebola epidemic, ensuring effective surveillance, building resilient public health systems, and decentralizing the manufacturing of vaccines are also essential components to consider in the debate, he contended.

On the other hand, Dr. Happi, emphasizing Ferrar’s comment on surveillance, stressed the importance of early warning systems and information sharing in combatting the pandemic. Citing the rationale for the creation of the Sentinel Dashboard for tracking real time Covid data, he underscored that “early detection is key” and cannot be possible without an “early surveillance system”. Principally, this demonstrates the importance of working collaboratively with citizens, civil society and the media in dispelling misinformation and building a reliable network of trust and confidence. As Ferrar carefully puts it, “everything starts in communities and ends in communities”. Philanthropic and other non-governmental organizations only provide social and epistemic support and thus cannot do everything. It’s impact only becomes stronger when there is a demonstration of political will on the part of their political counterpart – the government, he concluded. The clash of political will, collective good, and national interest remains an ever-present struggle, reshaping the politics of global health policies.

In a nutshell, it’s undoubtedly clear that vaccine inequities produce slower global responses at a huge risk, and in a time when people across the world are becoming increasingly frustrated with public health measures that have profoundly disrupted their social life. On the flip side, do people trust these vaccines, and are they willing to take it when made available amid all of the policy confusions, huge public distrust, bioethical concerns, conspiracy theories, and misinformation campaigns in Africa? Predicting the end of the pandemic amidst the current complexities is extremely difficult, but there are still possibilities if the tide changes, as the WHO leader clearly stated, “the pandemic will end when the world chooses to end it because it is in our hands.”

Contribution by Thomas Singbeh

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