COVID-19 is impacting our lives, our communities, and our economies. While the virus is affecting everyone, it will have the most significant impact on those most vulnerable, whether they live across the street or across the ocean.
Viruses don’t pay attention to borders — and neither can the world’s response plan. We need to mobilise resources for a humanitarian response not seen in decades. We need to make sure that new medicines and a vaccine, once available, are distributed equitably. And we need to invest in preparedness for the future, and push for global and national reforms to make a more just and equal world.
Here are four crucial elements of a global pandemic response:
1. Protect the most vulnerable, support essential workers, and make treatment and a vaccine available to all
Countries, businesses, and philanthropists must come together and provide the US$8 billion needed to fight COVID-19. This includes funding research, development, and supply of treatments, and supporting public health measures in countries with the weakest health systems. Countries should also continue to support Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to ensure routine immunisation continues in the world’s poorest countries.
As scientists work to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s essential for countries to enact price controls for vaccines. This will provide leverage for developing countries to negotiate a lower price, without compromising on the incentive for vaccine candidates to invest resources in developing a vaccine given high demand.
Governments also need to ensure social protection measures, such as cash transfer programmes, take-home rations and vouchers, and the ability to convert schools into feeding centres. And finally, governments must resist protectionist measures in export bans and reduce tariffs and trade barriers to ensure the global flow of goods, particularly for food and vital medical supplies.
2. Support the people worst hit economically
While cases of COVID-19 remain comparatively low across Africa, the economic impact has been severe, and resources are urgently needed now to tackle the immediate consequences.
African governments have requested US$100 billion to fund immediate health responses, social safety nets for the most vulnerable, feeding and protecting out-of-school children, and protecting jobs. The G20 must deliver this emergency economic stimulus.
The economic fallout from COVID-19 will be even more severe for countries in debt distress, which includes more than a third of African countries. Creditors should provide immediate debt relief. A moratorium, or suspension of debt payments, is the fastest way to free up cash in government budgets and create some much needed breathing room for addressing the crisis.
We also need emergency measures to protect 30 million jobs immediately at risk across Africa. G20 leaders should take measures to support agricultural imports and exports, and the pharmaceutical and banking sectors.
3. Strengthen health systems so we’re ready if this happens again
No country is fully prepared for a major pandemic. In 2005 after the SARS epidemic, 196 countries signed on to the International Health Regulations (IHRs) — a set of goals established to ensure countries were prepared to detect and respond to public health events. But today, no country is fully compliant with the IHRs.
The Global Health Security Index, which measures health security across countries signed on to the IHR, shows that even high-income countries only score on average 50 out of 100. But on average, low-income countries score lowest in their capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks.
We must change that and ensure all counties are compliant by 2025. This will require high-level political leadership, full funding to country action plans, and increased domestic investments in health systems strengthening.
All countries are vulnerable to a health crisis no matter where it originates; health security is only as strong as the weakest link in our interconnected world. Low-income countries cannot be overlooked in this equation. Donors and governments should prioritise US$4.5 billion in additional funding to help low-income countries and to ensure health security for all.
4. Respond to the imperative to create a more just and equal world
COVID-19 has proved existing institutions and rules are inadequate in preventing and responding to a pandemic. The response to this crisis will determine whether citizen disenchantment, fueled in part by high levels of inequality, improves or gets worse.
COVID-19 creates an urgent imperative to push for global and national reforms that would have been considered politically difficult or unimaginable previously.
As the world emerges from the crisis, we need a global conference on the scale of Bretton Woods to re-write the rules of globalisation for the 21st century where we can respond to pandemics, climate change, and gender and economic inequality.
Across the world, people have been standing together in solidarity. It’s time for our world leaders to create a plan that does the same.