World leaders have been warned that the emergence of a virus such as Covid-19 was “highly likely” for more than a decade. But they refused to prepare for it.
Their failures saw Covid-19 develop into a global pandemic that has killed millions of people around the world. A new report commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows the ways that this was “preventable”.
It makes for terrifying reading. And it exposes how underfunding, privatisation, inequality and competition that are at the heart of capitalism lie behind the pandemic.
Covid-19 became “a global pandemic threatening every country in the world” in less than three months. It took much of the world by surprise. But the panel said, “It should not have done.”
“Experts have been warning of the threat of new pandemic diseases and urged major changes in the way we protect against them,” it said. “But the change needed has not come about.”
In 2003 a Sars epidemic killed 774 people in six months, with 8,096 cases across 29 countries. Sars was also a novel coronavirus, but it was easier to contain because people didn’t transmit the disease until after showing symptoms.
“It was understood that if a new fast-moving pathogen were transmissible in the absence of symptoms, it would pose a much deadlier challenge,” the panel said.
In 2009 the H1N1 influenza pandemic broke out. In 2014-16 Ebola erupted in West Africa. There were other outbreaks, including Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers).
The panel said that, since 2009, “At least 11 high-level panels and commissions have made specific recommendations in 16 reports to improve global pandemic preparedness.
“The majority of recommendations were never implemented.”
One February 2016 report warned, “The high risk of major health crises is widely underestimated. The world’s preparedness and capacity to respond is woefully insufficient.
“Future epidemics could far exceed the scale and devastation of the West Africa Ebola outbreak.”
The devastation wreaked by Covid-19 flowed from putting profit above people’s health.
Preparing for pandemics was “vastly underfunded”. Instead, for most countries, “‘wait and see’ seemed a less costly and less consequential choice than concerted public health action”.
This approach prevailed even when the threat posed by Covid-19 was clear. The panel detailed how quickly warnings were made. But it took a quarter of a year for most countries to take any action.
By late December 2019 officials in China had publicly warned about unusual pneumonia cases linked to the Huanan Seafood Market. The market was closed and cleaned, and samples from a patient sent for analysis.
But this wasn’t until information regarding the virus was leaked by doctors following a cover up by the Chinese government.
On 5 January, the WHO officially alerted all governments about the virus. It declared Covid-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January.
At that point, the WHO said it was “still possible to interrupt virus spread”. But this would require countries to “put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts and promote social distancing”.
At that time, there were 98 cases in 18 countries outside China. But the WHO’s warning “was not followed by forceful and immediate emergency responses in most countries”.
Many countries didn’t act until March. By then “they had already seen widespread cases and/or their hospitals were beginning to fill with desperately ill patients”.
On 11 March there were 118,000 cases in 114 countries. “It is glaringly obvious that February 2020 was a lost month,” said the panel.
It was possible to limit the number of cases and deaths. Countries that strictly implemented contact tracing programmes fast were “highly successful” in limiting transmission.
Meanwhile, the worst-hit countries “devalued the science, denied the potential impact of the pandemic, delayed comprehensive action and allowed distrust to undermine efforts”.
The result was that “an outbreak became an epidemic and an epidemic spread to pandemic proportions”.
Many countries’ health systems were “beset by long-standing problems of fragmentation, undervaluing of health workers and underfunding”.
And “there was no international system that had created accessible stockpiles sufficient for the scale of country needs”.
The poorest and most vulnerable have suffered the most.
The panel said Covid-19 “has been a pandemic of inequalities”. “Those who had least before the pandemic have even less now,” it said.
Workers with fewer rights “have had little or no support”. Migrants and refugees have been “shut out of testing services and health facilities”.
People with “less social protection” were likely to have health conditions that made them more vulnerable. They were often more exposed due to work and living conditions.
“A lack of social protection prevented vulnerable and sick people from staying at home because of the risk of a loss of income.”
These inequalities also shape vaccine rollouts.
Several richer countries, including Britain, have enough vaccine doses to cover 200 percent of their populations. Meanwhile Covax, the programme to supply vaccines to poorer countries, had shipped 30 million doses to at least 54 countries by mid-March.
It expects to have only covered 27 percent of the populations of low and middle-income countries by the end of this year.
“Current institutions, public and private, failed to protect people from a devastating pandemic,” said the panel. “Without change, they will not prevent a future one.”
It argued for “system-level change”. “The bias of the current system of pandemic alert is towards inaction,” it said.
“Steps may only be taken if the weight of evidence requires them. This bias should be reversed—precautionary action should be taken on a presumptive basis, unless evidence shows it is not necessary.”
The panel slammed a “business as usual” approach that is “dominated by the development and sale by global corporations of propriety products designed for wealthy countries”.
This leaves everyone else “dependent on the goodwill of donors, development assistance and charity”. Challenging this system is not only the “right thing to do” but also “the only way to manage a global pandemic”.
“A new pathogen could emerge and spread at any time,” warned the report. It called for immediate changes.
“The shelves of storage rooms in the United Nations and Member State capitals are full of the reports of previous reviews and evaluations that could have mitigated the global social and economic crisis in which we find ourselves,” it said.
“They have sat ignored for too long. This time, it must be different.”