Two years of COVID-19 show we still need a better global response

Two years of COVID-19 show we still need a better global response

Two years of COVID-19 show we still need a better global response
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Two years after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis to be a pandemic, it is clear that significant policy mistakes were made in 2020 and 2021 that might have significantly extended its duration.
Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is one of the most vocal critics of pandemic policies and their effects. In particular, he has described vaccine inequality as a “monumental international policy failure” and warned that “history will not be kind” to Western leaders for stockpiling jabs.
Last month, he once again emphasized that a relatively small number of countries have monopolized the purchase of the vast majority of vaccine doses, and therefore controlled the supply, to the point where many of them remain stockpiled until they pass the use-by date and have to be destroyed.
Brown, who hosted the 2009 G20 summit in London, which is credited by some with staving off a second Great Depression, believes a similar act of international coordination is urgently required to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
He has urged countries to consider “extraordinary measures,” similar to those taken during the global financial crisis, to increase access to vaccines in developing nations, and called on governments to fill a £11.8 billion ($15.8 billion) funding gap within weeks.
The essence of the argument here is that the failure to coordinate vaccination campaigns on a global scale, rather than at national levels, means that there is a greater chance the virus might mutate, possibly into a vaccine-busting variant. If you have large populations that are unvaccinated in some places, such as much of the African continent, the disease might mutate faster and spread further.
Building from this critique, Brown’s predecessor as UK prime minister, Tony Blair, has called for new global health infrastructure so that we are better prepared for the next pandemic. This would not only help to improve coordination between countries in efforts to identify emerging threats but also in the development, testing and manufacture of vaccines and treatments.
Blair argues that with the right international coordination and investment, the creation of new vaccines to tackle future pandemics might be achieved in as little as 100 days. Contrast this with the amount of time it took to develop COVID-19 vaccines (very impressive though that achievement was) and then produce and distribute them while the world continued to endure a huge economic, as well as health, crisis.

The more policymakers act in response to one of the key lessons of the pandemic — that no one is safe until everyone is safe — the faster this crisis might pass.

Andrew Hammond

Specifically, Blair called for the creation of a more responsive system for tracking diseases and collaborating on the efforts to tackle them. This would mean that when the next pandemic arrives, the response would be more “akin to a military operation,” and involve tracking the emergence of new diseases using state-of-the-art surveillance techniques, in addition to having “surge capacity” on standby to produce vaccines and drugs.
Yet, while Blair looks to the future, and the financial markets and many people in industrialized countries appear to believe the pandemic is now completely over, the WHO continues to regularly warn that the crisis might still be far from over. Aside from higher levels of vaccine take-up, the global health body has called for precautionary measures to continue, including the wearing of masks and maintaining social distancing, in an effort to reverse the trajectory of the crisis.
Central to the WHO’s recent warnings, like those of Brown and Blair, is the notion that a greater global response is needed. This includes a call for the industrialized countries that bought up most of the vaccine supplies to urgently start sharing more of the doses with the rest of the world, alongside the continuing national roll-outs in their own countries.
For UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a second element of a proper global response to the coronavirus crisis would be greater financial burden-sharing, given the devastating effects of the pandemic on many economies.
Highlighting that fact that “there has been a $5 trillion surge in the wealth of the world’s richest” people since 2020, he has urged governments to impose a “solidarity or wealth tax” on the wealthiest individuals who profited during the pandemic, in an effort to help reduce extreme levels of inequality.
While the likelihood of a global tax appears unlikely, there has been a big move during the pandemic to change how global businesses are taxed — in effect, the idea of a global minimum corporation tax rate. Led by the Biden administration, 136 countries, which together account for more than 90 percent of the global economy, have signed a deal aimed at ensuring companies pay a minimum tax rate of 15 percent. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has steered the negotiations, estimates this minimum rate will generate $150 billion in additional global tax revenues each year.
The Biden team’s leadership of this agenda now needs to be replicated in relation to vaccine distribution so that there is an increasingly global response to that challenge, too. The more policymakers act in response to one of the key lessons of the pandemic — that no one is safe until everyone is safe — the faster this crisis might pass and the world move on to the “new normal” that comes next.

• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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