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The best time to prevent the next pandemic is now: countries join voices for better emergency preparedness

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COVID-19 will not be the world’s last health emergency and there is an urgent need for sustainable health emergency preparedness to deal with the next one.

This was the strong sentiment shared by participants of the United Nations General Assembly side-event on ‘Sustainable preparedness for health security and resilience: Adopting a whole-of-society approach and breaking the “panic-then-forget” cycle’. The high-level virtual event was co-hosted by Finland, France and Indonesia, along with the World Health Organization (WHO).

Past crises have shown that once an outbreak is under control, governments and donors tend to turn their attention to other pressing concerns. This cycle of “panic-then-forget” has prevented the development of effective health emergency preparedness across the globe. The world needs to break this cycle once and for all.

This week, the world crossed a grim milestone with over a million lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many more expected to have died from unprecedented disruptions to the health systems.

“Over the years we have had many reports, reviews and recommendations all saying the same thing: the world is not prepared for a pandemic. COVID-19 has laid bare the truth: when the time came, the world was still not ready,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in his opening address. He called for investing in preparedness, with an all-of-government and all-of-society approach. “This will not be the last pandemic, nor the last global health emergency. But with the right political and financial investments now, we can advance health security, prevent and mitigate future pandemics, and protect our future and the future of generations to come,” he said.

Countries spoke of their commitment to health emergency preparedness. “We know that preparedness makes economic sense, and we have developed tools and models for multi-sectoral cooperation. Learning from the pandemic and building on the previous progress should guide our steps to strengthen Health Security and thus help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Päivi Sillanaukee, Ambassador for Health and Wellbeing, Republic of Finland.

“There is an urgent need to leverage the response to COVID-19 to build, maintain and strengthen sustainable public health capacities for emergency preparedness […] France firmly believes that preparedness deserves to be placed much higher on the foreign policy agenda and we are willing to foster cooperation among Member States to ensure the continued visibility of this topic, whether here in Geneva or at the UNGA in New York,” said Stéphanie Seydoux, Ambassador for Global Health, French Republic.

Health emergency preparedness is part of the larger vision of health for all. In her speech, Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Retno L.P. Marsudi, reminded participants that “the investment we must make at the national level now is ensuring affordable health care for all. Let us ask ourselves, how many times have we heard of people denying themselves of much needed medical health care due to costs.... The issue of affordable health care for all is at the heart of Indonesia’s chairmanship of the Foreign Policy and Global Health initiative.”

Also sharing their countries’ experience with COVID-19 were the Ministers of Health of the Netherlands, Oman, Senegal and Singapore. Speaking to this issue as well were the Coordinator of the Group of African Ambassadors in Geneva, and Germany’s Deputy Director-General, Federal Foreign Office. The discussion was led by Ambassador Hasan Kleib of Indonesia in Geneva.

Stressing the role of community empowerment was the President of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Mr Francesco Rocca. He said his organization had learned from working with its network of responders in 192 countries that there is an urgent need to invest in preparedness at the community level, to “promote humanitarian action to be as local as possible, as global as necessary […] We call on governments, partners and donors to invest in preparedness at the community level to save lives and alleviate suffering in the next inevitable emergency.”

The role of parliaments and the importance of a multisectoral approach was highlighted by the Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Mr Martin Chungong. The International Association of National Public Health Institutes, and the European Commission’s Directorate General for Development and Cooperation emphasized the important role played by partner organizations in country and global preparedness and financing.

Mr Sami Kanaan, the Mayor of Geneva, stressed an all-of-society approach. “Local governments must not only be provided with the means to implement policies. They also need to be included in the international debates that eventually shape solutions to the humanity’s most pressing challenges,” he said.

Closing the event, Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, appreciated the participants’ remarks, and asked for them to be met with sustained commitment to preparedness. “We cannot, cannot, cannot let the world forget because the next one may not be anything but the worst one,” he said. “This (COVID-19) may just be a harbinger of what may come, we are living with too much risk.”

This event marked a crucial dialogue among countries, donors and partners on building back better for future emergency preparedness during the current COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond. It comes on the heels of the release of a sobering report by the Global Preparedness and Monitoring Board that also called for urgent action in this area.

According to the report, investments in preparedness would only cost US$ 5 per person annually, whereas the cost of this pandemic is already over US$ 11 trillion and counting.