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Will lessons be learned from the world’s failure on COVID-19?

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21 Sep 2022 01:09:00 GMT9
21 Sep 2022 01:09:00 GMT9

Tucked away in the news last week was an extraordinary announcement. It received few, if any, headlines. Yet it concerned the most dominant factor affecting most people’s lives over the last 32 months.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus claimed that “we have never been in a better position to end the (COVID-19) pandemic. We are not there yet but the end is in sight.” Apparently, deaths from COVID-19 around the world are at their lowest level since March 2020, when the pandemic was officially declared. Is this the time that we see COVID-19 transition from being a deadly disease to a manageable one?

The inevitable warning followed seconds later. Nothing about this pandemic has ever been easy. The last stretch could be the toughest, where the most work is required and vigilance essential. New waves and new variants could still occur. The coming winter months in the Northern Hemisphere may see an increase in infections.

The terminal stages of a pandemic tend to be long and drawn out. It is in this period that attention gets diverted by other crises, such as Ukraine and the cost of living. HIV/AIDS may have been declared over as a pandemic, but it is still killing people. Nearly 40 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2021.

The WHO has issued six policy briefs for governments — a summary of much of what has been learned over the last three years. One wonders which heads of government will ever read these briefs. What measures will be implemented in response?

So, why was this not more major news? After all, this is a pandemic that has hit every single country. More than 600 million cases of COVID-19 have been recorded, with more than 6.5 million people losing their lives. But these are only the official figures; the statistics from many countries cannot be relied on. Moreover, many countries have long stopped testing.

It has contributed to the current financial crisis, costing trillions of dollars, but who knows when, if ever, we will know the full cost. Consider all the emergency measures taken, the closures of borders and the restrictions on travel and other activities. Most people will never forget these three years.

The low-level response was possibly because, to many people, the pandemic is already over, even though it is not. Many people, not least in richer countries, have already had enough and have reverted to a normal, restrictions-free existence and do not wish to hear anymore about it. Most believe that their vaccine jabs will protect them — that science will always deliver the solutions. Others have developed a more fatalistic approach, just to get on with their lives and, if they get it, then so be it. Then there are the conspiracy theorists. Some of these believe that COVID-19 does not even exist, so they clearly are not interested.

This is a moment to review how the world has handled the pandemic. The distinguished medical journal The Lancet this month published its findings from the commission it set up in July 2020. It was scathing about the COVID-19 response, including the WHO’s slowness to react. Coordination between governments was too weak. Restrictions were too slow to be put in place. This is another document that leading politicians need to digest in full.

From the outset, too many underestimated this disease and many actors did not behave responsibly.

Chris Doyle

From the outset, too many underestimated this disease and many actors did not behave responsibly. China has faced legitimate criticism for its refusal to be more transparent about the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19. Many states were slow to react back in January 2020. It only became an international issue when it hit the richer states. Far too many health authorities were reluctant to accept that the virus could be spread through the air. Too many believed it would not move beyond Asia. Many did not believe the virus would mutate, while governments were slow to react.

But as we review the pandemic, everyone must also be mindful that COVID-19 may just be a taste of what is to come. Such diseases can spread so fast in our globalized, 21st-century world. Did we learn any lessons?

What the pandemic has highlighted is the chronic lack of equality across the globe. The richer countries had the resources to adapt. But even these richer governments struggled to produce or procure enough protective equipment. Vaccine inequity was outrageous. The system of intellectual property rights has been a major restrictive barrier. Even now, the continent of Africa is way behind the global average of 61.9 percent of people being fully vaccinated. Many richer countries prioritized the hoarding of vaccines over distributing them to poorer countries.

Will this change? Many will remain skeptical. In the wake of previous pandemics, such inequalities were never addressed.

Vaccine hesitancy remains. Despite the extraordinary scientific success of developing and rolling out the vaccines so fast, many remain skeptical. Some of these doubts should not be dismissed lightly, and such hesitancy was strong in countries like France. Others like the conspiracy theorists — those who think, for example, that Bill Gates was using the vaccine to microchip the world’s population — should be dismissed with the contempt they deserve. How will global authorities address this challenge and instill greater confidence?

In part, this is owing to the increasing broader trend of ignoring or even denigrating scientific expertise. Disinformation and misinformation remain rife. The WHO referred to it as an “infodemic.” Some of this was the responsibility of governments. Up until May of this year, North Korea maintained that it had no COVID-19 cases. Social media has been the toxic accelerant of the myths and lies that blighted the pandemic response. Institutions and governments have to address this.

Another worrying aspect is that many feel that the restrictions should never have been imposed. Will it be an outcome of this pandemic that the economy must always come first, ahead of public health? Liz Truss, in her successful campaign to be Britain’s new prime minister, pledged never to reimpose lockdowns. But who knows if public health will require lockdowns in the future. It is folly to rule them out.

Better preparedness and collaboration are key. Early warning systems must improve and surveillance should be enhanced. We should keep testing and improve vaccine rollout. Medical facilities and others have to improve their biosafety. Better ventilation and air filtration for buildings must be pursued.

Let’s be honest, the world failed on this. It was not ready. Lessons were not learned. Despite the WHO calling for pandemic preparedness in the past, this was not implemented. This is just one pandemic, but it could be one of many. So, even now, everyone would be wise to mind the tail end of the WHO statement. The last yard will be the toughest.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, in London. Twitter: @Doylech
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