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OPINION: Rebuilding a more resilient planet

Friday, 1 May 2020 10:25 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

COVID-19 shows us how human health, access to food, a healthy planet, gender equality and democracy are inextricably connected

Karina Gould is Canada’s Minister of International Development

The idea that our lives would be brought to a standstill by a global pandemic was almost unimaginable. However, today we find ourselves living in the shadow of a virus that has killed more than 200,000 people in a matter of a few months. Unlike other, recent epidemics, this is not only happening “over there”. This virus is not constrained by national borders.

As many experts have said, we will only be safe until everyone, everywhere on the planet is safe.

Unless we accept this, we will be vulnerable to the next pandemic, which could be much deadlier. Consider the following: while COVID-19 is highly contagious, experts estimate between 40-70% of the world’s population will be infected, its mortality rate is between 2-4%. This is the mortality rate in industrialized countries with access to modern medical interventions. In many developing countries the availability of ICU beds, oxygen and ventilators is frightfully low.

Compare this to the Ebola epidemic which is only now approaching its conclusion. Ebola has a mortality rate of around 50%. What if the next pandemic has a similar mortality rate and is as contagious as COVID-19?

As a global community, we must come together to prepare for the next outbreak.

The first thing we can do is the most obvious: build stronger health systems in vulnerable countries. Until now, we have tended to approach global health disease by disease. Billions of dollars have been spent on tackling polio, AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, etc., and rightly so. We must build on these investments towards creating universal primary health care for all.

This was painfully illustrated by the experience of the DRC where in combating the Ebola outbreak, other health care provision was neglected. When Ebola killed over 2,000 people, and attracted such attention, twice as many children died of measles.

We need to continue to fight the diseases that threaten human life, but need to be more intentional and build local and regional health systems that can respond to crises and provide primary, universal health care to all. 

In part, strengthening health systems means empowering providers by giving them the resources and the support they need to flag unusual patterns. This will require us to undertake a massive transfer of knowledge and power to local communities and leaders.

The second action we need to take is to protect our planet and take climate action seriously. Changing weather patterns are placing increased strain on a stressed food system. As humanity encroaches on the natural world at an alarming rate, the instances of interspecies infections will only increase. Evidence suggests that more than half of emerging infectious diseases are originating in animals. We need to make serious, sustained investments in food security, and conservation, so that we can fight food insecurity and hunger. We need to realize that food -that nutrition - is the most basic input for better health outcomes.

The third action we need to take is to address systemic gender inequality. Despite bearing the brunt of pandemics as health care workers, primary caregivers and small share agriculturalists, women often do not have adequate access to healthcare, nutrition, education. They are also marginalized when it comes to accessing agricultural inputs. The world is seeing a disturbing rise in gender-based violence and child abuse with protection services challenged by physical distancing. We will not be able to address these challenges without women : they must be included, and listened to. 

Finally, we must double down on our democratic values. It is becoming clear that there is a direct relationship between citizens trust in their governing institutions, and their willingness to follow their advice peacefully. Furthermore, transparency and accountability in the provision of health data are paramount for national governments and the world community to effectively respond to the current pandemic. We must remain steadfast in our commitment to upholding human rights; it is in times of crisis, that civil liberties, freedom of expression, and a free press are most important.

Viruses do not know borders; they do not distinguish between the wealthy and the poor. Our health here depends on the health of the other “over there”. Together, we must rebuild a more resilient planet.

To prevent a future outbreak, we must strengthen our health systems, protect our environment, address food security, promote gender equality, and commit to democratic values. It may sound ambitious, but if ever there was a time to realize we were all in this together, it is now.