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OPINION: To avoid future pandemics, put communities at the heart of the response to COVID-19

by Preeti Sudan and Thoraya Obaid
Wednesday, 26 May 2021 11:25 GMT

A healthcare worker reacts as she receives a dose of COVISHIELD, a COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India, during one of the world's largest COVID-19 vaccination campaigns at Mathalput Community Health Centre in Koraput district of the eastern state of Odisha, India, January 16, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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

We need sweeping reform of global systems to prepare for the next outbreak of a dangerous novel virus, which could happen any time

Preeti Sudan retired as Secretary of India’s Ministry of Health & Family Welfare in July 2020

Thoraya Obaid is former Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund and served as Chair of Women 20

We have to end this pandemic as quickly as possible and prepare immediately to avert another one.

For the first task, we need immediate supplies of vaccines and oxygen to curb the current catastrophe, and they must be distributed to the lowest-income countries where needs are greatest. For the second, sweeping reform of global systems is needed to prepare for the next outbreak of a dangerous novel virus, which could emerge at any time.

As members of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, we were charged with finding out why the pandemic happened and producing recommendations on how to prevent a reoccurrence.

The worst pandemic in a century calls for a response of an appropriate magnitude.  We have therefore proposed a package of recommendations that must be taken as a whole, but one chief proposal is a new Global Health Threats Council, led by heads of state, senior health experts and leaders from business and civil society.

It will ensure that high-level political leadership and accountability are sustained over time in the service of a vision of a world without pandemics. It will provide the coordinated, highest-level political leadership that COVID-19 has revealed is imperative to making this vision a reality.

We also want to see the World Health Organization become more independent from its donors and have more authority, allowing it to announce suspected outbreaks without a national government’s approval and to investigate in the shortest possible time.

Our findings and recommendations have been delivered this week to the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body whose call for a review into the pandemic led to the Independent Panel’s creation this time last year. 

World leaders have welcomed our ideas. We expect momentum to build through further international meetings this summer, culminating in a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in the autumn, where a political declaration should commit all countries to transforming the international system for pandemic preparedness and response.   

But these high-level reforms can only be meaningful and impactful with the engagement of communities to deliver change at ground level, where it really matters.  

For example, our report recommends that every country conduct simulation exercises on a yearly basis as a means of ensuring continuous risk assessment and evaluating preparedness for the next health crisis. That cannot possibly be done without the support of community leaders.

From India to the United Kingdom to Nigeria, our research found numerous examples of properly empowered community groups which were effectively involved in combatting COVID-19, ranging from paid and voluntary health workers, women’s support groups, traders’ associations, religious leaders and many others.

Their activities included meeting market traders to discuss infection control, talking to people on shopping streets and at their homes about self-isolating and physical distancing. It involved distributing hand sanitiser, personal protective equipment or food, informing citizens about vaccines, reporting suspected cases of the disease, facilitating testing and contact tracing, and correcting misinformation.

The use in India of mobile phone technology to create “road maps”, detailing places visited and modes of transport taken by COVID-19 cases, was possible only with the active engagement of community members. These maps were shared with health authorities, notified to users of the Aarogya Setu app and released through social media.

Our Panel, co-chaired by Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia, listened to various communities, including women, youth, and civil society members. They listened just as carefully to dozens of frontline workers – nurses, midwives, and community health workers - those who have risked their lives to protect others, and those who have some of the most practical lessons to teach. 

What was abundantly clear is that these voices need to be heard and to inform our planning for future threats. National and regional leaderships need to work with community leaders because they have the trust of their communities and can often deliver messages about pandemic risk and precaution with credibility and effectiveness.

After all, it is the people who take public health measures, or don’t; who demand vaccines or hesitate to use them; and who support one another to be resilient through the toughest of times. 

The impact of COVID-19 has been manifold: urgent non-COVID medical problems have been neglected, issues of mental health have been on the rise, especially among the young. We have seen disruption to education, a rise in domestic violence and a more unstable labour market, particularly for women. More must be done to guard vulnerable and marginalized communities, including those who are digitally excluded, migrants, those living as refugees or in conflict zones.

The pandemic has harshly exposed the world’s inequalities and inequities, but our response can make sure that those are addressed in the short and long term, so that we can come out of the pandemic looking forward to a better world.

Hope has been provided by changes that the urgency of the situation has forced on governments. Income support has been provided to millions of people in places where, before the pandemic, that had been considered a political impossibility. Campaign-based health services, like immunization, have bounced back rapidly.

The world has already begun discovering that a truly all-inclusive and equitable approach to making COVID-19 the last pandemic is the only way forward.


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