Preparing for the next pandemic: What we have learned entering year three of COVID-19

Source(s): United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Although pandemics are a fact of human life, the world was blindsided by the impact and devastation of COVID-19. What we do now could make this pandemic the last of its kind.

In the two years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic, we could not have envisioned how completely it would invade every aspect of our lives—from the catastrophic toll it has taken on physical and mental health and health systems, to our jobs and education, to supply chains, and the trust in the systems designed to protect us.

Entire economies have been devastated. Domestic violence rates have skyrocketed. Families, friends and communities have become divided over vaccines and masks. Vaccine inequity continues to deepen the gap between rich and poor nations.

Learn from history, recent and distant

The report, ‘COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic’ confirmed what we have seen played out in real time, that we were woefully unprepared.

This was not because the world lacked the money and the know-how. It didn’t. The brutal truth was there was no good reason, financial or otherwise.

Years of warnings from public health officials, infectious disease experts and scientists have been ignored.

Even though most people alive did not experience the 1918 flu pandemic, the 2000s saw several dangerous outbreaks—SARS, Ebola, Zika and MERS—which sounded warning bells that weren’t heeded. Likewise, the slow response to the HIV pandemic in the early ’80’s highlighted the importance of taking decisive action early.

And the 2021 Global Health Security Index found that nearly two years into the pandemic, despite some progress, all countries remain “dangerously unprepared” for the next major outbreak.

“I have been struck by our consistent failure to learn lessons. And not even lessons from previous epidemics or pandemics. In tackling Omicron, the global community has failed to learn lessons from Delta, and in tackling Delta it has failed to learn lessons from other variants and the original strain. This must stop.”
– Mandeep Dhaliwal, Director of the HIV and Health Group, UNDP

Everything is connected

Failure to invest in just one SDG target, on pandemic preparedness, put the brakes on recent progress on sustainable development.

Experts underscore the importance of truly understanding how the health of people, animals, and the planet interconnect. Health security plans cannot, in future, be piecemeal. Responses must be bolstered with social protection, especially during lockdowns.

The COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker has shown that women being systematically excluded from pandemic response planning is further hobbling equitable responses.

We need to act more quickly, and with greater fairness.

Equity is healthy

The pandemic has exposed rampant and overlapping inequities; those who were already behind have suffered the most. Children and young people have borne the brunt of the indirect effects. The digital divide has exposed the vastly different opportunities in schooling, working from home and recovery from the pandemic.

Vaccine equity is critical to getting sustainable development back on track.

We urgently need faster vaccine production and deployment, improved manufacturing capacity across the world, affordable pricing and equitable distribution and delivery of vaccines.

The Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity, a collaboration between UNDP, WHO and the University of Oxford, shows that just 13.3 percent of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated against COVID-19, in stark contrast to 68.6 percent in high-income countries.

UNDP research shows that eight out of ten people pushed into poverty by COVID-19 are projected to live in the world’s poorest countries in 2030, further compounded by a fragmented recovery and all but erasing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) progress since 2015.

“Data shows that slow recovery disproportionately impacts poorest countries. If low-income countries do not receive the support and vaccines required to rapidly speed up their vaccination rollouts, their economic recovery will remain out of reach. We must prioritize the furthest behind first, and redouble our efforts to ensure the pandemic recovery sets the foundation for a more equal world that is better prepared for future pandemics.”
– Laurel Patterson, SDG Integration Team Leader, UNDP

Investments pay dividends

COVID-19 took advantage of years of underinvestment in health issues such as non-communicable diseases and mental health, and lack of universal health coverage. We also lost precious ground on HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

At the same time, we have seen how prior investments can be repurposed, in the crucial mobilization and reallocation of resources to COVID-19 from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and the US President’s Emergency Relief Plan for HIV/AIDS.

Leadership is consequential

Effective leadership has been so important that it has been called the “ultimate vaccine” against coronavirus.

“Leadership and competence have counted more than cash in pandemic responses. There is a clear opportunity to build a future beyond the pandemic that draws on the wellsprings of wisdom from every part of the world.”
– Authors, ‘A Global Deal for our Pandemic Age’

According to the independent panel for pandemic preparedness and response, high-performing countries acted fast and early with coordinated, comprehensive and science-based action. They communicated well. Many adapted previous responses to HIV, Ebola in West Africa and SARS in Asia and Canada. Poorer performers devalued science, failed to build trust, and either delayed or put out inconsistent messages.

A ‘once-in-generation’ opportunity

If we fail to learn from this pandemic, the costs will be even more catastrophic by every measure—lost lives and suffering, economic damage, widening inequalities, and even more serious backsliding in sustainable development.

The good news is the cost of an effective and just pandemic response is a fraction of what a poor response costs us.

COVID-19 has been projected to cost the global economy more than the estimated annual costs to finance the SDG agenda and 500 times as much as pandemic prevention measures.

An important breakthrough occurred in December when the World Health Assembly, the decision making body of WHO, began work on global pandemic accord described by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to strengthen health architecture for all.

Our best hope is to prepare for the worst

There are plenty of reasons for optimism. The pandemic has shone a brighter light on inequality, and the need to focus on global public goods.

Science has been remarkable, and new technologies are giving hope for quicker progress on future pandemics and other diseases.

Can the pandemic and associated failures trigger the action to speed the end of this pandemic and to ensure it’s the last of its kind the world ever faces?

“The pandemic can be a pivotal moment in history. One that propels us out of a state in which we were not prepared, sleepwalking toward the next pandemic, and turning a blind eye to widening inequalities, towards a world prepared for the next pandemic.”
– Mandeep Dhaliwal, Director of the HIV and Health Group, UNDP

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