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The global response to the pandemic has been “a collective failure”, according to independent health watchdog

The world is failing to learn the lessons of the pandemic and is still doing too little to address the issues it has caused, warns an independent watchdog set up by the World Health Organization and the World Bank.

A new report by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) explains in no uncertain terms that the global response to the pandemic has been very underwhelming, and is still plagued by issues. Instead of learning from such a traumatic event, we are leaving those that most need help behind, the report concludes.

The pandemic has exposed a world that is “unequal, divided, and unaccountable”, it concludes.

Leaves much to be desired

“If the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was defined by a collective failure to take preparedness seriously and act rapidly on the basis of science, the second has been marked by profound inequalities and a failure of leaders to understand our interconnectedness and act accordingly,” the report said.

“The health emergency ecosystem reflects this broken world. It is not fit for purpose and needs major reform.”

The report cites WHO estimates which place the overall death toll of the pandemic (both direct and indirect) at 17 million people. While that number in itself is frightening, the authors also point to a sharp — and growing — divide in the vaccination rates between wealthier and poorer areas of the globe.

Despite more than six billion vaccine doses being administered globally to date, only 1.4 percent of people in poor countries have been fully vaccinated, explained World Trade Organization chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala earlier this month.

The report comes in the wake of the 2020 GPMB report which was already pointing out how ill-prepared the world was for a global pandemic, despite numerous warnings from researchers and healthcare professionals that such an event was unavoidable.

“Scientific advancement during COVID-19, particularly the speed of vaccine development, gives us just cause for pride,” reads the report’s foreword, written by GPMB co-chair Elhadj As Sy.

“However, we must feel deep shame over multiple tragedies–vaccine hoarding, the devastating oxygen shortages in low-income countries, the generation of children deprived of education, the shattering of fragile economies and health systems. While this disaster should have brought us together, instead we are divided, fragmented, and living in worlds apart.”

The sheer loss of life caused by the pandemic is “neither normal nor acceptable,” he adds.

Against this backdrop, there’s little evidence that we’re actually learning from the pandemic. Deaths from COVID-19 are still mounting, while vaccination efforts are stalling in many areas of the globe. Areas of the world with the resources and infrastructure needed to distribute large quantities of vaccines are starting to ease into the illusion that the pandemic is over. On the other hand, poorer and less fortunate areas are seeing their national health system buckle and break under the strain of extra patients who need intensive care, while their own vaccination drives are progressing painfully slowly — due to a lack of resources, adequate infrastructure, or lack of trained personnel.

But in our interconnected world, there’s no feasible solution for beating this pandemic alone. The growing number of cases is a very real threat even for countries that have achieved high vaccination rates within their own borders. In a globalized society, there is no such thing as closing off your gates and weathering the storm outside.

The solution, GPMB proposes, is “a new global social contract to prevent and mitigate health emergencies”. They sum this contract up around six key points:

  • Strengthen global governance; adopt an international agreement on health emergency preparedness and response, and convene a Summit of Heads of State and Government, together with other stakeholders, on health emergency preparedness and response.
  • Build a strong WHO with greater resources, authority, and accountability.
  • Create an agile health emergency system that can deliver on equity through better information sharing and an end-to-end mechanism for research, development and equitable access to common goods.
  • Establish a collective financing mechanism for preparedness to ensure more sustainable, predictable, flexible, and scalable financing.
  • Empower communities and ensure engagement of civil society and the private sector.
  • Strengthen independent monitoring and mutual accountability.

It’s easy to read such material and feel defensive, even insulted. Haven’t we all suffered our share during this pandemic? Haven’t we all done our best to come through it? What more do these ‘organizations’ want from us, and what do they even know about us? And that’s certainly an understandable reaction.

But we have to look beyond that. Organizations such as the GPMB exist because they serve a role we as individuals, communities, governments, and countries cannot do on our own. Their job is to tell us when we all, as a species, are not acting in our own interest — and to hold us accountable. The hard truth is that our natural inclination during times of crisis is to hunker down and wait it out. But working together is the fastest and most efficient way of dealing with threats, including pandemics. We may not like the idea that our choices here can influence someone’s chances of survival half the world away, but they do. And while there’s precious little we as individuals can do, we can do our own little part, and we can hold those in charge accountable for doing their own, much larger part; both at home, and abroad.

The full report is available on the GPMB homepage.