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What can make the pandemic treaty work?

By Titilola Obilade
22 November 2021   |   3:38 am
On March 30 2021, 26 heads of states under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Council made a call for a pandemic treaty.

European Council (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

On March 30 2021, 26 heads of states under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Council made a call for a pandemic treaty. Among other things, the proposed treaty would be a proactive instrument to prevent and mitigate major disease outbreaks around the scale of the COVID-19 and if by chance vaccination is an antidote, then the treaty would strategize plans to distribute vaccines equitably between the rich and poor nations.

The lyrics to Michael Jackson’s 1992 song, “Heal the World” will comfortably fit into the objectives of the pandemic treaty. The late American songwriter wrote, “Heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me, and the entire human race. There are people dying. If you care enough for the living, make a better place for you and me.”

As it is now, while the rich nations are going about getting the third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as a booster, most of the people in Africa are yet to get their first dose. Earlier this year, Canada had COVID-19 vaccine doses that were five times more than they needed. On November 29 2021, 194 countries will meet at the World Health Assembly (WHA) session to discuss the pandemic treaty. The purpose of the meeting is to arrive at an international agreement on the prevention and preparedness for future pandemics.

In the history of mankind, we have had pandemics like cholera, plague and more recently the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV) and the COVID-19. Before the development of pharmaceutical interventions, prevention of highly infectious diseases was usually by isolation, quarantine, wearing of face masks and strict border control. These non-pharmaceutical interventions are still in use today. The year 2020 was notably the period when the world was brought to its knees by the novel coronavirus. The world events that followed also showed that more needed to be done to prevent and prepare for future occurrences.

Following these events, we do not need a soothsayer to see that the gulf between the rich and less developed nations has widened even further. We have inequitable distribution of vaccines while some rich nations were able to stockpile in vaccine doses leaving less developed nations and the entire African continent scrambling for giveaway vaccine doses. We also had some world leaders disregarding the non-pharmaceutical recommendations. Sadly, not all the world leaders that disregarded the COVID-19 protocols survived the infection.

The global response to the pandemic became an eye-opener to the limitations of poor nations and the excesses of rich ones. It also became a rude awakening to the limitations of the global health watch dog. The World Health Organisation (WHO) did not muster enough authority to fully and extensively challenge China for her lack of speed in notifying the world health body on the appearance of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China. Similarly, when a delegation of representatives of the WHO went on an investigative mission to China to assert the origin of the virus, all their questions could not be answered.

The messaging and sensitization around the virus and vaccine doses were not always well-shored. Health messaging must be broken down to the smallest, understandable unit without any ambiguities. Myths and conspiracies around the pandemic should not be wished away. Rather, they should be evidentially and respectfully debunked.

For a pandemic treaty to work, the leaders of the G7 countries must lead by examples, not hoard vaccines. With the G 7 countries controlling fifty percent of the global wealth, it is not enough for the leaders of these countries to make speeches about ending the pandemic or merely donating vaccines. At a point, countries like South Africa that did not have vaccines had a business deal to produce and export vials of vaccines to European countries.

The four tech giants should pay more taxes to a special purse for pandemic preparedness and prevention. These four tech giants; Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google made superfluous amounts of profits during the pandemic. Their combined worth is around 3.1 trillion dollars.

Leaders of politically, unstable countries will find it challenging to control the spread of a disease during a pandemic so efficient leadership is criteria for management of a pandemic. In Africa alone, more than 200 coups have been attempted since the 1950’s. Half of these coups were successful. In 2021 alone Guinea, Mali and Sudan have witnessed military coups. Beyond Africa, Myanmar’s democratically elected leader was ousted by the military with trumped up charges that she imported walkie-talkies and breeched the COVID-19 protocol. Coups typically weaken the economy and make the environment unstable for business. If a country is politically unstable it cannot coordinate a response to a pandemic.

We must not ignore the role that climate change has to play. The recently concluded 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) is a nod to the significance of deforestation and the animal-human interface when we encroach on animal habitats through industrial development and fossil fuel use. Many of the great emitters of carbon pledged to reduce the use of fossil fuels over time. Importantly, the animal-human interface is where deforestation in the bid to claim forest lands for industrial development or agriculture has brought animals and sometimes pathogen carrying ones like bats and monkeys closer to human habitats.

In addition, there are still laboratories that deal with live pathogens. If these pathogens are released into the air, they can cause pandemics. There have been suggestions that the novel coronavirus was released from a laboratory. While it remains to be proven, laboratories dealing with live pathogens should have strict regulations on their movements.

In preparedness for future pandemics, there should be designated laboratory centers in north, west, east and southern Africa for the development and production of vaccines that would be used in Africa so that the African continent is not left waiting for leftovers. There should be international regulations on quick genome sequencing of pathogens during pandemics. The quick genome sequencing of the novel coronavirus by the Chinese shortened what would have otherwise been a lengthy process in the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

The World Health Organization should be strengthened and empowered in the investigation and reporting of diseases of public health concern. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how a disease can quickly spread across borders and incapacitate nations wreaking havoc to livelihoods, rolling back decades of gains in education and female empowerment. It’s not been doom and gloom as the tech giants have had enormous gains in profit.

As we have seen even if it is just one country that is not able to protect itself against a pandemic, all other countries that may think they are cocooned from the disease are at risk. The world is a global village. The International Health Regulation (IHR) is the legal framework agreed to by countries of the world to do all within their powers to investigate and report any public health emergency including pathogens that can cross borders. Unfortunately, out of all the countries that are signatories to the IHR, less than half of them have the wherewithal to investigate and report pathogens that can cause pandemics. Therefore, in addition to all the suggestions I already made in this paper, countries that are not capable of investigating and reporting diseases of public health importance should be strengthened with all the human and non-human resources. Further, the IHR should be revised by all the countries party to the legal framework on their obligations to immediately report diseases that are likely to cross borders.

The pandemic treaty can work if the G7 countries and tech giants do more and if the global health watch dog would get more muscle to investigate diseases of public health importance. As that great songwriter wrote,” If you care enough for the living, make a better place for you and me.”