Learning from the past and present: Building a stronger multilateral system for pandemic preparedness and response for the future
4 May 2021
On May 4th 2021, the Heads of State of Ethiopia, Rwanda and South Africa; the Heads of Government of New Zealand, Singapore, and Sweden; and the Minister of Foreign Affairs representing the Prime Minister of Spain, convened by the co-chairs of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, the Rt. Hon. Helen Clark (former Prime Minister of New Zealand) and Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (former president of Liberia), participated in a Round Table discussion focused on ‘learning from the past and present: building a stronger multilateral system for pandemic preparedness and response for the future’.
The Co-Chairs presented the initial findings of the Independent Panel, on how the current international system failed to protect people from a devastating pandemic, and why the system is not fit to prevent a future one. The COVID-19 outbreak became a pandemic, and the pandemic triggered a societal crisis, widening inequities and harming the most vulnerable people in our societies.
“It is the virus that causes the disease, but it is human action – and inaction – that causes the pandemic.”
Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa
Those present acknowledged that the pandemic is far from over ̶ it is still killing more than 10,000 people every day. People in many countries continue to suffer successive waves of infection; hospitals have again filled with COVID-19 patients, and families are losing loved ones. Participants agreed on the need for immediate measures to curb transmission, and to begin work now to strengthen future protections.
“Every country must participate in efforts to strengthen the global system. Multilateral collaboration is essential, and the WHO has a central role to play.”
Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore
The safe and effective vaccines available are a scientific triumph, but they must now be delivered across the globe. Fewer than one in a hundred people in low-income countries have received a first dose, another living example of inequality. As the virus spreads, it is also mutating and creating new challenges.
“The recent emergence of rapidly spreading variants makes the rapid and equitable rollout of vaccines all the more important. But we now face the real danger that even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the world’s haves and have-nots.
The price of inequitable distribution of vaccines will not only be paid by the lives and livelihoods of people living in the Global South, but the ensuing variants that arise will end up affecting the entire world.”
Sahle-Work Zewde, President of Ethiopia
Participants reflected on the fact that COVID-19 has caused a crisis so deep and wide that leaders must urgently accept their responsibility to transform the way in which the world prepares for and responds to global health threats. The international system for pandemic preparedness and response requires fundamental change, catalysed by global political leadership at the highest level, including by those gathered at this Round Table.
“It is clear our global community was not adequately prepared for COVID-19. It is also clear that COVID-19 will not be the last global health risk that we face.
To reduce the risk of a future pandemic and to ensure we avoid another societal crisis it is vital we learn from COVID-19 in order to improve the global health system.
Preparing for the future while COVID-19 is still ongoing will be challenging, in particular for those member states most currently affected. But prepare we must.
Reforming the global health system will require that we are ambitious and practical; that changes are evidence-based, sustainable, and have equity at their core; and finally, as COVID-19 continues to remind us, we must work together.”
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand
The participants were receptive to the messages from the Co-Chairs, including that there is a need for even stronger leadership and better co-ordination at both the national and international levels. A more focused and independent WHO is a priority. Urgent investments in preparedness are needed now and not when the next crisis hits. The importance of building an improved system for surveillance and alert with speed that can combat viruses like SARS-CoV-2 was acknowledged, as was the need for authority to be given to WHO to publish information rapidly. The world requires a pre-negotiated platform which is able to produce vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics, and supplies and to deliver them more rapidly and equitably as the need arises.
“Global threats require global cooperation. We need a strong international system for preparedness and response to pandemics. The WHO plays a crucial role to strengthen global health systems.”
Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden
Pandemic preparedness and response must function well at the national, regional, and global levels, across different sectors of social and economic life, and engage government, business, and community. Measures in the recovery phase from this pandemic must be put in place to ensure that such a pandemic never happens again, by building forward stronger and better.
“The world did indeed mobilise in important ways to respond to Covid-19. Alongside protectionism, there were also examples of solidarity. But it was not enough, given the speed and the severity of the disease. We need bold action, right away. We look forward to supporting the Independent Panel’s recommendations.”
Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda
In concluding, those present acknowledged the importance of further dialogue at the level of Heads of State and Government to agree on the reforms needed and on pathways to achieve them, with the aim of ensuring that the world can avoid the next outbreak of a novel pathogen becoming another pandemic. This could take the form of the President of the UN General Assembly calling on the UN Secretary General to convene a Special Session before the end of the year to support a reform agenda in a political declaration.
“Strengthening multilateralism is the underlying theme.”
Arancha Gonzalez Laya, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Spain