Tuesday January 18, 2022

Response to Covid-19

June 01, 2021

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response was never likely to hand down a rosy report with gobbets of praise. Organised by the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last May, the panel’s gloomy assessment was grim: the Covid-19 pandemic could have been avoided.

Almost nothing in the main report could be seen as remarkable in these jaded times. It reads like a sharp vision of looking backwards, a history of folly and stumbles. The protagonist, SARS-CoV-2, proved wily, moving more rapidly than surveillance could detect it, ducking the monitors and seducing the examiners. The rest of the actors in the show proved, to varying degrees, to be inept, indifferent and even callous.

Such attitudes were shared in a climate of prior warning. Humanity has already faced events of mass viral mortality. That there would eventually be a pandemic of this scale was being discussed well ahead of the novel coronavirus march. But governments, planners and policy makers seemed unmoved. When action took place, it was tardy. “Although public health officials, infectious disease experts, and previous international commissions and reviews had warned of potential pandemics and urged robust preparations since the first outbreak of SARS, Covid-19 still took large parts of the world by surprise.”

The WHO itself is not spared a few chastising blows by the panel members. The organisation’s Emergency Committee should have, they argued, declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern a week earlier than it did: on January 22, at its first meeting, rather than January 30, by which time there were already 98 cases in 18 countries outside China. Not doing so also caused critical delays in mustering a global response. “The meeting of the WHO IHR Emergency Committee called to discuss the outbreak on 22-23 January was split on whether to recommend that the outbreak be declared a PHEIC.”

A central theme emerges: communication. And it is rather unsatisfactory. “It is glaringly obvious that February 2020 was a lost month,” the report states. Various Asian countries speedily responded, introducing intense testing and tracking regimes. But the WHO remained tentative. Evidence was weighed, balanced, and considered. Standard and sober as this was, the WHO did not consider convincing material that would prove to be beneficial. One was the importance of wearing masks.

The result: a pandemic that busily infected 150 million people, killed over three million people, and exposed deep inequalities. (Pandemics remain, historically, the great unmaskers.) “Division and inequality between and within countries have been exacerbated, and the impact has been severe on people who are already marginalized and disadvantaged.”

Excerpted: ‘How It All Went Wrong: the Global Response to COVID-19’