COVID-19 – We need to act UNITED!
The current COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in both its scale and impact. The outbreak shows that neither our preparedness nor response mechanisms functioned as intended. Within three months, the pandemic has spread worldwide to all continents. It is at this moment that the strength of our governments, international organizations, and health systems are being challenged; and not all results will be satisfactory.
As of June 22nd, over 9 million cases worldwide have been reported and over 450,000 deaths. These high numbers of COVID-19 infected persons and casualties demonstrate the global failure to learn lessons from previous outbreaks. The Global Health Monitoring Board and Global Health Security Index warned us long before the COVID-19 catastrophe occurred. The global community was not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic that would lead to “tragical high levels in mortality, causing panic, destabilizing national security and seriously impacting the global economy and trade.” (Global Preparedness Monitoring Board report, 2019).
At the scale of the acute pandemic, no country is able to cope with the pandemic by itself. Thus, our governments need to reconsider the current multilateral order and expand international cooperation in a more efficacious way.
Safeguarding the Global Health Measures. As national leaders, we have pandemic preparedness obligations to the world at large, in addition to our domestic responsibilities. All states adopted the International Health Regulations (IHR, 2005). The aim of the IHR is to strengthen the public health response against an international spread of diseases.
The COVID-19 outbreak however has shown us significant gaps and shortfalls within these regulations. Numerous challenges continue to impede IHR’s effectiveness although some progress has been made by implementing them in several countries. While most high and middle-income countries have the core capacity to meet the surveillance, diagnostic, and containment demands of the IHR, many low-income countries do not. They lack human and financial resources as well as technical know-how required for implementation of the IHR, and thus further constraining the global implementation of the regulations. Therefore, multilateral and bilateral partnerships are needed to support these countries by building IHR core capacities. Commitments of donor countries need to be reinforced, as member states have the responsibility of protecting the wellbeing of fellow nations, as well as their own citizens. Establishing a trust fund at the WHO could be one possible finance mechanism that would provide incentives for developing countries to conduct voluntary joint external evaluations (JEE) in compliance with the IHR.
Strengthening of the WHO. WHO coordination and convening mechanisms are stretched to its limit. The organization lacks the systematic support it requires from the United Nations in order to tackle more broadly issues such as security or trade pact violations that are beyond its scope. Therefore, we should be pushing forward the reform process within the WHO and increase the mandatory country contributions that will strengthen the leadership role of the WHO. Only an adequately funded international health body with the adequate autonomy and authority can effectively prevent the next pandemic
This can only be achieved if political consensus is achieved at the highest levels by addressing health with the same level of attention as other serious threats confronting countries. However, the decision of the US-President to cut funding for the WHO opposes the goal of strengthening this organization. It significantly damages the world’s most important manager of epidemics and pandemics and has a negative impact on its reputation and credibility, making international cooperation in the current crisis even more difficult. The WHO acquired a lot of international critics. This critic requires a further work-up and a critical review itself. However, trying to destroy this important institute is politically a wrong approach. A transparent and independent evaluation of the global response to the COVID-19 crisis and a review of the functionality of the WHO at the earliest appropriate moment are certainly a necessity and justified. The resolution adopted unanimously by the 194 WHO Member States at the 73rd World Health Assembly represents a major step to back the WHO’s leadership.
Economic resilience. The COVID-19 pandemic will shrink the global economy by 5.2 per cent in 2020, representing the deepest recession since the World War Two according to the latest report of the World Bank. Yet, this economic emergency will not be resolved until the health crisis is effectively addressed, and established mechanisms are inactive in aiding countries with the greatest need.
In the wake of the Ebola epidemic, the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF) was launched by the WHO and World Bank to provide additional financing to the world’s poorest countries to fight a disease outbreak. The PEF exists to provide rapid financial stimulus by bringing the private and public sectors together. Yet, the complicated set of activation criteria and competing interests of the two sectors proves insufficient for the complex situation presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although declared a PHEIC on January 30 and a pandemic on March 11, the PEF has not yet paid a single dollar due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The newly established WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Fund, and its associated campaign elements, along with the WHO Contingency Fund are containing the health emergency from spiraling out of control, but further financial support from the IMF needs to be discussed in order to support countries already with fewer resources to fight the pandemic. Unless we do find new ways of financing global health, the world is at risk.
Accelerate the implementation of SDGs action plan. Without strong health systems, we cannot improve global health security. There is a major need to accelerate implementation of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Action Plan to provide the basis for health, security, and stability. The major goal is to develop a comprehensive, needs-based health systems that are easy accessible and won’t place people in a severe financial disaster in the event of illness. The ability to act by the organizations who signed this plan must be ensured as they are suffering a serious setback of their work amidst this outbreak. Moreover, disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to have a devastating impact on immunization programs in the world’s least-developed countries. Immediate delays to vaccination campaigns and routine introductions will mean at least 13.5 million people in 14 of the world’s least-developed countries will not be protected against diseases such as measles, polio, and human papillomavirus (HPV). In future, this could seriously affect the implementation of a newly developed SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a strong reminder that infectious diseases recognize no borders. The corona-crisis gives us the chance to show us a way to develop better platforms and systems. Therefore, it is time for political leaders to take a more prominent role in global health structures. We recognize that this crisis provides us with a unique chance to strengthen international cooperation and to find new ways of financing. Now is the time. We need leadership and willingness to act united in order to save lives and our economy. UNITE’s parliamentarians are keen to do so.
This article was originally written for United Nations Association of Germany by Members of UNITE Prof. Dr. Andrew Ullmann MdB and Dr. Ricardo Baptiste Leite. Access original publication in German here.