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‘During the peak of the Omicron wave in January 2022, US congressional leaders across the political spectrum were frustrated by the need to transform the country’s pandemic response. “We can never let this happen again,” was a frequent refrain. But a year later, and three years after Covid was declared a pandemic, that collective resolve is diminished.

The promise to prepare for pandemics in fundamentally new, far more ambitious ways has rapidly faded.’ An excerpt from a March 12, 2023 New York Times (NYT) article ‘How to prepare for the next pandemic’ by Tom Inglesby, who is John Hopkins Center for Health Security’s director

Instead of appropriately providing special drawing rights (SDRs) to developing countries so that they can make much-needed development allocations to health and education sectors, for instance, so that they are better prepared for a possible another pandemic.

Unfortunately, the same kind of ‘diminished’ resolve is reflected in the lack of provision of debt moratorium/relief by creditor countries, multilaterals, and private lenders.

Moreover, the lack of policy emphasis in developing countries in general to significantly increase tax base, and to substantially move toward a progressive taxation regime, is also not allowing greater development expenditure. Therefore, there exists a situation, which needs to change quickly.

On the contrary, the IMF has been pushing programme countries – including Pakistan, which has also seen serious damage to life and livelihood in the aftermath of catastrophic flooding last year – to adopt austerity policies, and that too in a procyclical way. This is a profoundly dangerous approach to say the least, given years of neoliberal assault have already weakened the public sector’s delivery capacity, and given the fast-unfolding climate change crisis, there has been an increased likelihood of another pandemic.

The same NYT article highlighted the dangers of another pandemic as ‘As horrible as Covid has been… it is not the worst-case scenario. There are viruses with case fatality rates twice, 10 times or even greater than that of Covid, such as H5N1 influenza (bird flu), Nipah and Ebola.

Fortunately, those viruses have not developed the capacity for efficient human-to-human respiratory spread. A concern is whether a new viral strain with higher case fatality will also develop the capacity for rapid spread among people.

There is growing global concern over H5N1’s spread in animals — a development that governments must track and prepare for, and which all the more should broadly spur vigorous new pandemic preparedness efforts.’

Hence, on one hand the likelihood of another pandemic, and the fast-closing window – with most scientific consensus of around a decade before this happens – of keeping average global temperatures below 1.5 degrees – as research indicates, this being a barrier after which it will not be possible to reverse climate change crisis – on the other, calls for enabling developing countries to have expanded fiscal space to make the needed development expenditures.

In addition to greater fiscal space, there is also a need to have more effective public sector, for which the mantra of Neoliberalism of market fundamentalism, lesser regulation, and over-board privatization will all have to be shunned.

Notwithstanding the lack of public sector preparedness to deliver better vaccine- and other medical equipment rollout during the pandemic, for instance, the austerity fiasco as evidenced from happenings in Greece, for instance, in recent years should serve as a glaring example to learn from, and quickly move policy to non-neoliberal, and non-austerity orientation.

Noted economist, James K. Galbraith in his recent Project Syndicate (PS) published article ‘The austerity train wreck’ indicated in this regard: ‘What about those who imposed the terms of austerity, deregulation, and privatization on the Greeks? The International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission – the infamous troika – took effective control of the Greek government in 2010 and again in 2015 and still run the show to this day.

They also made no errors. They simply applied the dogma that had been prescribed by economists in the service of creditors. Theirs was victor’s justice, executed precisely as intended. The human error therefore lies elsewhere. It lies with those who devised, defended, and promoted the economic doctrines that have ravaged Greece, and with the rest of us who went along.’

Three years after the Covid pandemic was declared, it is quite clear that a number of deaths could most likely be avoided if the world were better prepared for this, and had not practiced vaccine injustice.

This was pointed out in an open letter from a number of Nobel laureates, among numerous leaders from other walks of life. A March 11, 2023 press release from ‘The People’s Vaccine’ indicated in this regard ‘More than 200 current and former world leaders, Nobel laureates, civil society organisations, faith leaders, and health experts have united to call on governments to “never again” allow “profiteering and nationalism” to come before the needs of humanity in a pandemic, in a letter coordinated by the People’s Vaccine Alliance to mark three years since the World Health Organization (WHO) first characterised Covid-19 as a pandemic.’

The letter itself criticised the profiteering mindset of the corporate world, along with lack of government leadership globally to both check this tendency, and also to not practice vaccine injustice pointed out in this regard: ‘World leaders must reflect on mistakes made in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic so that they are never repeated.

There are decades of publicly funded research behind COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests. Governments have poured taxpayer money by the billions into research, development, and advance orders, reducing the risks for pharmaceutical companies. These are the people’s vaccines, the people’s tests, and the people’s treatments.

Yet, a handful of pharmaceutical companies has been allowed to exploit these public goods to fuel extraordinary profits, increasing prices in the Global North while refusing to share technology and knowledge with capable researchers and producers in the Global South. …Had governments listened to the science and shared vaccines equitably with the world, it is estimated that at least 1.3 million lives could have been saved in the first year of the vaccine rollout alone, or one preventable death every 24 seconds. …[Moreover] Governments at the World Trade Organization (WTO) took too long and did too little to address this barrier for Covid-19 vaccines. WTO members should move to approve an intellectual property waiver for Covid-19-related vaccines…’

Copyright Business Recorder, 2023

Dr Omer Javed

The writer holds a PhD in Economics degree from the University of Barcelona, and has previously worked at the International Monetary Fund. His contact on ‘X’ (formerly ‘Twitter’) is @omerjaved7

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