It’s nonsensical not to fight Covid-19 as one world
The WHO needs urgent financial assistance to support countries with the most vulnerable populations and fragile health systems responding to Covid-19, write Lord Jack McConnell and Theo Clarke MP. PA Images
Covid-19 is a global crisis, the case for global cooperation and coordination in both a response and exit strategy has never been stronger
While Covid-19 case numbers in sub-Saharan Africa currently make up just a fraction of those in Europe and the US, we know the weeks to come will see catastrophic consequences for low and middle income countries. Withholding vital contributions that help mobilise expertise and share resources through the World Health Organisation could lead to devastating results. In the Covid-19 global response, the biggest hill is still yet to climb.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) plays a vital role in supporting and guiding how countries respond to Covid-19, a role that has been repeatedly threatened over recent days.
This comes at a time when the WHO needs urgent financial assistance to provide support to countries with the most vulnerable populations and fragile health systems responding to Covid-19. As we have seen in Europe, this crisis has tested strong health systems beyond their capabilities. Undoubtedly then, countries with already fragile health systems will face a myriad of challenges.
As the leading contributor to the international coalition to develop a vaccine, the UK is already positioning itself at the forefront of these global efforts. But it must do more. Without strong international leadership and solidarity, through global mechanisms such as the WHO, the consequences of Covid-19 will be overwhelming. There are at least three reasons why the case for a truly global response to Covid-19 has never been stronger.
Strengthening health systems is everyone’s business
Roughly one-third of hospitalised patients with coronavirus need intensive care. For many countries, responding to this need through existing health systems will be impossible. Tanzania, for example, has just 1 doctor for every 30,000 patients, while most African countries have less than 20 ICU beds for their entire populations. Not only will the virus be more difficult to contain, but the ability to care for those infected is severely limited.
We are only as strong as our weakest health system.
Every country needs to strengthen their preventative measures to fight the immediate crisis. However, ultimately, they also need good defence measures against future epidemics: strong, resilient health systems.
Investing in health workers worldwide, as well as providing adequate protective equipment and other essential medicines helps prepare low and middle income countries to deal with the immediate threat of Covid-19 and avoid thousands of preventable deaths. But these investments are also critical if we are to emerge from this crisis with health systems that can effectively beat future outbreaks. We are only as strong as our weakest health system.
Having stronger health systems everywhere also ensures that we protect the steps we have already taken towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In recent years, the worldwide number of children dying before their fifth birthday has continued to decline and major progress has been made in fighting against communicable diseases. But much more still needs to be done. Losing sight of these goals and the SDG 3 health targets risks turning the clock back decades for the health of people all around the world.
Epidemic intelligence as a global public good
While the UK takes measures against the multiple challenges that the Covid-19 crisis brings, this – like for many nations - has presented far-reaching questions about managing an epidemic. What control measures should we take? How do you quarantine large populations in urban areas? What role should health workers play at the community level? For many countries disproportionately affected by infectious diseases, this multiplicity of risks is something they have prior experience managing.
Armed with an understanding from the SARS 2002/2003 outbreak, China and Singapore highlighted the importance of enforcing unprecedented levels of restrictions and contact tracing to halt widespread transmission. Having faced major Zika outbreaks across the region in 2015-2016, we saw Colombia quickly seal its border with Venezuela after reporting its first coronavirus case. West Africa's lessons from Ebola on the importance of protecting frontline health workers are invaluable for any Covid-19 response strategy.
Of course, there is no single model for handling an outbreak and no virus is the same. But the worldwide sharing of experience has helped not only to predict the trajectory of Covid-19, but also to determine a response to slow it down. It is critical that we build and maintain a stream for invaluable knowledge to scale up our response to future global health challenges.
Arriving at a vaccine quickly, as one community
The Covid-19 pandemic has galvanized researchers to work together as a global coalition like no other threat to public health. By working as one, they are binding existing expertise and clinical trial capacity to increase the pace at which the world will arrive at a vaccine.
No one is wasting time. Competitive structures have been abandoned and many academics are pushing articles into an open forum for the world to see. This is already enabling researchers to identify and share information on viral genome sequences to launch clinical trials around the global. Equally, advances in mechanisms and technologies for sharing and pooling data rapidly has bound the science community together.
The crisis is and will continue to demonstrate that only by uniting and joining forces can we ensure faster, more extensive research for everyone’s benefit.
Ultimately this remains a global crisis, and one that can only be beaten by first recognising the integral role of international cooperation and then matching promises with actions.
We welcome the UK’s Department for International Development’s (DFID) announcement of support over the weekend, including £65 million in aid for WHO, but further action must be taken to strengthen fragile health systems and invest in health workers around the world to respond to the crisis. DFID is well-positioned to respond swiftly and effectively and should scale up support further to protect lives.
Whilst the G20’s pledge to do whatever it takes to beat Covid-19 is important, it does not go far enough in urging countries to share vital knowledge and resources. A recent letter signed by more than 100 former Presidents and Prime Ministers asked for coordinated global leadership through the creation of a G20 Executive Task Force, as well as $8 billion to plug global shortfalls in funding. This week, many current African and European heads of governments called for the international institutions, including the WHO, World Bank and all relevant global health organisations to co-create a joint action plan and use all available instruments to reach low and middle income countries. We hope that the UK will back these calls for greater international collaboration and support strong action through the forthcoming G7 and G20 meetings.
We very much welcome the leadership that the UK has already shown through its significant commitment to find a vaccine, and we urge it to now take steps to ensure that when we arrive at one, everyone can benefit. Any publicly funded vaccine needs to be available on an open-access basis and made affordable across the world.
In its briefings to the world, the WHO has persistently called for global solidarity to fight this pandemic. We must not let threats obscure this important guidance. The case for global cooperation and coordination, in both a Covid-19 response and exit strategy, has never been stronger.
Lord McConnell is a Labour member of the House of Lords. Theo Clarke is the Conservative MP for Stafford.