The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the fabric of our societies. The question is whether countries can pull together in their research on vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, or whether misguided nationalism will prevail
The World Health Organization was founded in 1948 with a simple but bold vision: the highest attainable standard of health for all people.
Like every pandemic before it, the COVID-19 pandemic will change the world. It already has.
Lives and livelihoods have been lost and economies and societies have been upended. The pandemic has exposed and exploited political fault lines and inequalities, and the gaps in national health systems. The effects will be far-reaching and long-lasting.
But the impacts go far beyond the suffering caused by the virus itself, with major disruptions to services for nutrition, immunisation, non-communicable diseases, family planning and more.
It has never been clearer that health is a political and economic choice. In the past 20 years, countries have invested heavily in preparing for terrorist attacks, but relatively little in preparing for the attack of a virus – which, as the pandemic has proven, can be far more deadly, disruptive and costly.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, much attention has been given – rightly – to accelerating the development of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. Advances in biology, science and technology have propelled this work. No disease in history has benefited from such rapid research.
But the greatest test we face now is not scientific or technical. It is a test of character. Can countries come together in solidarity to share the fruits of research? Or will misguided nationalism reinforce the inequalities and injustices that have blighted our world for too long?
In April, the World Health Organization, the European Commission and many other partners launched the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator to catalyse the development and equitable distribution of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. As part of the ACT Accelerator, more than 170 countries have joined the COVAX Facility, gaining guaranteed access to the world’s largest portfolio of vaccine candidates.
But in our urgency to end the pandemic, we must give equal urgency to the task of doing everything we can to prevent another pandemic of this magnitude and severity from ever happening again.
At the World Health Assembly in May, WHO’s member states endorsed a historic resolution calling for a comprehensive review of the international response to the pandemic. As a result, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has been established and has started its work.
I have also established a review committee under the International Health Regulations to assess whether changes are needed to the legal instrument that governs global preparedness and response for health emergencies.
But several lessons are already staring us in the face.
The lessons we’re facing
The first is that health is not a luxury item for those who can afford it. It is a necessity, a human right and the foundation of social, economic and political stability.
The second is that there has never been a greater need for global cooperation to confront a global threat. A coherent international response is key to stopping this pandemic.
And the third is that the time to prepare for emergencies is before they occur. COVID-19 has demonstrated that the world was not prepared. Even some of the most advanced societies and economies have been overwhelmed.
In recent years, many countries have made enormous advances in medicine. But too many have neglected their basic public health systems, which are the bedrock for preventing, preparing for, detecting and responding to outbreaks.
Investments in disease surveillance and monitoring, health promotion, water, sanitation and hygiene and in educating and empowering communities and building a strong health workforce are therefore essential for building resilient public health systems.
The absence of any one of these leaves communities vulnerable and undermines the timely response necessary to contain outbreaks.
Some countries are already showing the way. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that Germany will invest €4 billion by 2026 to strengthen its public health system.
Ultimately, the best defence against the impact of outbreaks and other health emergencies is a strong health system, built on primary health care with an emphasis on promoting health and preventing disease.
That is why WHO’s top three priorities are healthier populations, universal health coverage and health security. Addressing the root causes of disease in the air people breathe, the food they eat, the water they drink and the environment in which they live and work is essential for keeping people healthy and out of hospital. When people do need health services, countries have a duty to ensure those services are accessible, affordable and high quality. Just as many countries invest in their military capacity in case of conflict, so too they must invest in robust public health capacities to prepare for, prevent, detect and respond rapidly to outbreaks when they occur.
This will not be the last pandemic. But when the next one comes, the world must be ready. Part of every country’s commitment to build back better must therefore be to public health, as an investment in a healthier and safer future.