Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a former President of Liberia, the co-chair of the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, and a member of The Elders.
It’s predictable that at this point in time leaders may want to focus on anything but pandemics. It’s been more than three years since COVID-19 started, people have grown weary from its toll, and most lockdowns and other restrictions have been lifted.
But moving on would be a terrible mistake. Failure to prepare now for the next pandemic puts the whole world at risk of more deaths and economic losses. Now is when the investments of time and money needed to minimise those risks are modest.
So far, the world has failed to apply the lessons from COVID-19, as well as from other outbreaks such as swine flu, bird flu, and Ebola. We know that it is a question of when, not if, the next pandemic occurs, yet e remain dangerously ill-prepared.
And it’s not like we don’t know what can be done. Reports from groups like the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which I co-chaired with former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, and the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board have offered clear recommendations to strengthen the resilience and responsiveness of international systems and institutions to such threats.
The problem lies in a chronic failure of political will by our leaders, particularly those in the prosperous states of the Global North. Their short-term approach to addressing COVID-19 exacerbated the pandemic’s impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people—not least in terms of vaccine production and distribution—and was counter-productive to their own people’s interests. They ignored the central lesson of dealing with pandemics: nobody is safe until everybody is safe.
A course correction is needed to avoid future catastrophes and to staunch the erosion of trust among those who feel they were abandoned by the rich world in their hour of need. This outbreak highlighted how quickly systems can fail—and how infectious diseases know no borders.
I know from personal experience how critical principled and practical leadership is at times of crisis. In 2014, I was President of Liberia during the deadly West Africa Ebola epidemic. Ebola taught me that leadership is not only about taking control and making decisions that may not always be popular but about empowering others to act. It also taught me that global solidarity is essential. In October 2014, I wrote a letter to the world pleading for assistance. A mass mobilisation of resources led by the United Nations followed. Ebola barely spread beyond West Africa. We defeated it together.
It has been maddening to see how little the world learned from Ebola when it came to tackling COVID-19. Further complacency and “pandemic fatigue” will only lead to a widening of the gaps in the global pandemic preparedness and response agenda.
I fear that, in the face of the next pandemic, if we follow the same inconsistent, inefficient, and inequitable approach as we did to COVID-19, we risk not only a significant global health threat but also economic, political, and security catastrophe.
The Independent Panel that I co-chaired in 2021 called for coordinated political leadership, national preparedness, new financing, fit-for-purpose surveillance systems, clear rules governing early warnings and global alerts, a more robustly funded World Health Organization, and, crucially, a system that ensures people everywhere have access to tests, vaccines, and treatments.
To deliver these reforms, a new approach is needed. The Elders—the group of former world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, of which I am a member—are working to secure strong global political leadership from heads of state and governments on pandemic preparedness and response, the transformation of pandemic financing, and a clear commitment to put equity and human rights at the heart of the pandemic agenda. To these ends, we support the creation of a Global Health Threats Council, a body that would rightly elevate this issue to the highest political levels, taking the whole-of-society approach such a threat necessitates.
2023 should not be remembered as the year the world moved on from COVID but rather the year the world’s leaders seized the opportunity to apply lessons of the past toward ensuring a healthier future.
A number of developments offer hope for bold and transformative change: the World Bank’s recently-launched Pandemic Fund promises to provide critical pandemic financing to low- and middle-income countries; negotiations are underway at the WHO on a new pandemics accord; the WHO is also working to strengthen the International Health Regulations governing cross-border public health emergencies; and there will be a U.N. High-Level Meeting on Pandemics in September.
But these initiatives will not succeed unless major economies fully buy in—with both funding and political will. It’s encouraging that leaders in Japan, which will host the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May, seek to spotlight global pandemic preparedness and responses as a vital component of human security. Its G7 and G20 peers must support this and collectively raise their ambition.
Liberia was caught by surprise when Ebola hit us in 2014, as were many countries when COVID-19 came. Today it is clear what needs to be done to not be surprised by and to effectively manage the next pandemic. To squander this chance would be an unforgivable betrayal of current and future generations.
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