Everyone has things that, looking back, they would have done differently in the early days of 2020, had they known how the Covid-19 pandemic would tear across the globe. But those regrets may be particularly poignant for global leaders whose actions (or lack thereof) had direct impacts on how Covid-19 spread.
Joanne Liu, a professor at McGill University’s School of Population and Global Health and former international president of Doctors Without Borders, has some advice for those leaders.
“If we wanted to, this could be the last pandemic. It’s a political choice,” said Liu, who was part of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, established by the World Health Organization to author a report examining lessons from the response to Covid-19.
Liu joined STAT’s Katherine MacPhail on the virtual stage Tuesday at the 2023 STAT Future Summit. Here are her key pieces of advice for a better approach to the next big global health threat:
Fast, immediate steps are necessary
Looking back at the beginning of the pandemic, Liu said that the first mistake was inaction. “For most of the world, it was a lost month, the month of February . People sat on their hands and nothing much happened,” she said.
The World Health Organization declared the virus a public emergency of international concern in late January 2020, about six weeks after the virus first cropped up. This was too late, she said, but still an improvement on the six months it took WHO to declare the same about the Ebola outbreak that started in 2014.
She believes that every day counts, especially in a pandemic with human-to-human transmission.
“I prefer an imperfect solution, like we had for Covid-19, than no solution at all,” Liu said.
Words are nice, but action is better
Later this month, the United Nations will host a major meeting to discuss ongoing shortcomings in pandemic preparedness. But Liu and the independent panel have critiqued the U.N. for not calling for more action in the report associated with the upcoming meeting.
“We were hoping for a call to action, but there’s only three paragraphs that start with the word commit,” she said. “The rest is really good-feeling type of vocabulary: reaffirm, promote, explore, urge.”
At the end of the day, Liu believes that a more concrete plan from leaders is needed.
“Everybody now has gotten really good with different vocabulary. Nobody would discuss pandemic response without mentioning equity, that would be a real faux pas,” Liu said. “It’s one thing to name things, it’s another thing to commit it to action,” she said.
Global solutions need to be prioritized
One of the key recommendations that Liu and the independent panel made on pandemic preparedness was that leaders need to come together holistically, rather than letting each country fend for itself.
“We need to have a sustained high level of attention from world leaders,” Liu said. “This should be the Chernobyl moment, the moment that we come together and we just say, ‘This is it, guys.’ We align. We see a global governance, and we stick to it.”
Every country needs access to countermeasures like vaccines, she said, which will also require robust funding. Governments need to come together and potentially spend billions to save trillions of dollars.
She compared pandemic preparedness to the climate crisis: “I cannot in Canada just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to do my little bit and it’s going to be enough.’”
This type of global unity didn’t happen during the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016, Liu said, and it’s what worries her the most about the next potential pandemic.
“It is normal to some extent that each country would be for its domestic interest. But at the end of the day, we are so interconnected, interdependent, that we need to come together,” Liu said.