While the effects of Covid-19 are still being felt around the world, now is the time to prepare our legal frameworks for the next pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has raged for more than two years, still killing people even as many communities and countries struggle to recover from its many impacts. The next global pandemic could be just around the corner, while smaller-scale disease outbreaks remain commonplace in some parts of the world. The time to start preparing is now.
We know that preparing and responding to disease outbreaks requires strong national health systems, better investments in community level health care, good surveillance and contact tracing, research and data, and a global supply chain of vaccines and medicines available to all.
Underpinning all of this is a need for strong and comprehensive legal foundations.
Outdated and inadequate laws
In emergencies, people do not often think much about legal issues, yet the debate about which rules to apply to governments, communities and the private sector has come to the forefront during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many governments realised their laws and policies were outdated or inadequate. New legal instruments were developed at lightning speed, often without adequate time for a robust debate or consultation with experts and stakeholders.
As we emerge from the crisis, we have an opportunity to invest in and improve our legal frameworks for public health emergency preparedness. Governments, lawmakers, donors, and the humanitarian and development sectors must all work to strengthen global health security with disaster laws and tools, such as a global pandemic treaty, that ensure more effective and equitable approaches to future emergencies.
As mandated by the parties to the Geneva Conventions, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has provided advice and expertise on disaster law and policy worldwide for decades and has now developed a Guidance on Law and Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response based on a survey of legal frameworks in more than 100 countries at the beginning of the pandemic. It proposes nine considerations that lawmakers should take into account when revising legal and policy frameworks to support effective preparedness and response to public health emergencies.
The report finds that many states still rely on ad hoc measures, struggling with gaps between public health, emergency management, social protection laws and institutions, and hindering their ability to build a comprehensive response to what has become a simultaneous public health emergency, global economic shock, and political and social crisis.
When roles and coordination mechanisms were not clearly defined in national law, we lost precious time and public trust. Clarity on everyone’s role in overcoming a pandemic is critical. Disaster laws must ensure that communities are fully engaged and enabled to act, particularly community volunteers, and civil society at large.
The role of community actors
This is vital because community actors make a big difference. With IFRC guidance and resources, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Society volunteers reached 1 in 12 people worldwide during the pandemic, demonstrating how a community-based approach can leverage existing capacity, produce substantial public health results, revive flagging public trust and address an extensive range of humanitarian needs.
Unfortunately, restrictions introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19 also constrained humanitarian actors and other frontline responders such as Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from carrying out their critical roles in responding to emergencies and reaching vulnerable populations.
To work best, we need to put communities at the centre of their own response. Governments must also recognise the unique mandate given to National Societies to support domestic authorities and communities to prepare and respond to epidemics and pandemics and to provide them with legal facilities such as exemptions from movement restrictions, authorisation to provide certain services during public health emergencies and priority access to pandemic response products including vaccines.
Sierra Leone learned this lesson in the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak, and successfully put its experience to work in response to Covid-19. A national framework developed in the aftermath of that experience clarified how government, the private sector, non-profits and the Sierra Leone Red Cross could collectively prepare for and respond to all-hazard emergencies. So when Sierra Leone’s first case of Covid-19 was identified, the Red Cross had already been working alongside the government to plan how to best prepare and respond. Because the National Society’s auxiliary role was recognised and specific services and expectations had been clearly articulated in the national disaster management preparedness plan before the pandemic occurred, they were able to quickly mobilise and respond.
Such legal frameworks are especially vital where public resources are thin at the community level, as they allow community actors to protect themselves and provide for vulnerable and last-mile communities that would not otherwise be reached, but which must be reached if we are to ensure global health security.
The pandemic has both thrived on and aggravated existing inequities. Despite strong verbal commitments to global solidarity in supporting the most vulnerable, only 20% of people in low-income countries have received at least a single dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. In comparison, 67% of the world’s population has received at least their first dose. The current negotiations of global legal frameworks must ensure that this never happens again, with respect not just to medical countermeasures, but also to the entire range of health countermeasures that are needed during any public health emergency such as access to services, information, contact tracing and surveillance.
During emergencies, marginalised and vulnerable people, including those suffering from violence, people on the move, detainees and people discriminated against because of identity are pushed further into the fringes where they struggle to access basic services and information. Disaster and public health laws can and should provide for their protection.
We must act now and learn from our mistakes so that in the future we can avert the chaos and confusion that have marred the Covid-19 response. The IFRC and our 192-member National Societies stand ready to do our part in strengthening global health security, providing our expertise and advice to governments in developing domestic laws and our action on the ground to transform into reality.