A stitch in time saves nine, they say. Turns out preparing for a pandemic would have saved the world 500 times more. A recent study estimates that it would have cost the world an additional $5 per person to fend against pandemics – that’s about $40 billion. But an unprepared world has had to lose to Sars-Cov-2 over $20 trillion, in terms of a) pandemic response costing $11 trillion (per IMF) and b) $10 trillion loss in future earnings for younger generation due to school/college closures and deep recession (per World Bank).
The study in question, titled “A world in disorder” and convened by WHO and World Bank through their Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, lays down what should come next. A realization that world could have invested a few billions to save many trillions may well be present among national governments, multilateral institutions, development partners, and even private sector. But question is: what lessons have been learnt for the future, if not for current pandemic that has been a runaway devastation?
The pandemic’s colossal costs have been attributed by the report’s authors to “lack of leadership”. About 100 million additional people are feared to have been pushed into extreme poverty. Besides, the crisis has wiped out decades of progress in women’s empowerment, education (implications for drop-out rates, child labor and child marriage), food security, infant and maternal health, preventable diseases, as well as social cohesion and political freedoms.
The experts take a clear stance that the multilateral development system on its own won’t be enough to counter pandemics of the future. Instead, the response has to be part of a whole where national leaders show responsibility. Leaders ought to act decisively, follow science and establish surveillance and early-detection systems. They must also increase healthcare capacity and expand social protection systems.
Then comes an engaged citizenry. The civil society needs to demand such level of preparedness. Besides, “influencers” should be a force for good, calling out those in power that go down the path of “politicizing messages and measures”. Ordinary citizens will need to stay informed and follow the facts so that disinformation and misinformation do not make a bad situation worse.
This is followed by the ‘investment’ part. That’s where multilateral players like the UN, World Bank, WHO, G20 and international financial institutions (IFIs) can provide sustainable financing. The report calls for pandemic preparedness to be made part of country risk assessments by leading IFIs like World Bank and IMF. Thus, indirectly, a level of preparedness in a recipient country’s systems can be brought about.
And finally, the world needs ‘agile systems’ that can handle national, regional and global coordination. The authors, which include renowned American Physician Dr. Anthony Fauci, have called for a system that provides a) early alerts on pathogens, b) grades health emergencies based on threat level, and c) provides objective, universal guidelines on how to manage trade and travel during such events. Besides, real-time information on supply chains and stockpiles of essential goods and medicines is also critical.
It’s unlikely that world leaders will pay heed to these recommendations. Already, multilateral platforms like the UN Security Council, the G7 and the G20 are riven with tariff wars, geopolitical tensions and the usual bureaucracy. The bigger tragedy has been that WHO has been made controversial by none other than its erstwhile backer, the United States. Now wait for confrontations over how vaccines are distributed.
The report recommends that at least 2 percent of every country’s population should get initial vaccination, mainly for frontline healthcare workers. Yet, reality is that some rich countries have already moved fast to secure bilateral deals with the leading Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine project. That leaves little in dosage for rest of the world. No wonder the report’s authors have declared that it’s a world in disorder, where no one is safe until everyone is safe.