Policymakers must co-ordinate a long-term global response to COVID-19, experts warn

By on 30/07/2021 | Updated on 30/07/2021
Policymakers must treat the COVID-19 crisis as a systemic global health challenge, experts say. Credit: Pouya Bazargard/ Mehr News Agency/Wikimedia

Officials across the world need to “absorb” the long-term nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and treat it as a global health challenge, a new report advises.

This includes policies such as improving healthcare infrastructure, virus surveillance, data sharing and vaccine distribution.

“The uncomfortable reality is that it [COVID-19] will remain a major threat for years to come, and the danger to everyone will be much greater without a co-ordinated global response to tackle it,” the report, published by the Institute for Government in partnership with the health research charity Wellcome Trust, warns.  

Tackling COVID-19 over the long-term, which was published earlier this week, collates insights from a range of experts – including scientists, former government ministers and senior officials.

It covers three broad themes: the current pandemic situation and how it might develop in future; the challenges for policymakers; and possible “future priorities”.

Taking stock

While the picture over the last year of the pandemic has been mixed – with some outcomes better than expected and some worse – the report is unequivocal about the current situation: “we are in a dangerous second phase of the pandemic, with new variants spreading rapidly,” it says.

Nor is this likely to end soon, the report notes. “With approaching half a million new cases being recorded per day globally – a figure that is rising – it is likely that further dangerous variants will emerge. There is a large ‘viral reservoir’, and this looks set to remain the case for some time,” it says.

Part of the problem is that we are “flying blind”, the report says, as low- and middle-income countries struggle to track transmission and variants.

Furthermore, one scientist quoted in the report observed that some governments in low- and middle-income countries “see it as not in their interests to report outbreaks or admit there is a problem, which can be equated with political or administrative failure”.

Policy implications

While many rich countries – such as Canada, the UK and Israel – have successfully delivered vaccine programmes, just 1% of people in low-income countries have had their first dose, according to the report.

Policymakers must develop a more co-ordinated response to improve vaccine distribution across the world, the report urges. Five factors play into this, it notes: making the “politics” of vaccine sharing work; pledging more money; improving dose sharing (countries need to agree a formula to govern quantities and timings of vaccine supplies); upping production; and helping countries to distribute vaccines.

The report also calls for the pandemic to be “treated as a systemic global health challenge that requires improvements in healthcare infrastructure, surveillance and global data sharing.”

Building capability in healthcare – and financing it – must form part of this, the report says. Access to treatment and healthcare must be secured, especially in countries that do not have plentiful vaccine supplies. There are also longer-standing problems such as lack of intensive care and hospital beds, and reduced capacity to monitor outbreaks. 

Experts “agreed that global health care has suffered from years of under-investment, which has left the world vulnerable to pandemics such as this one,” the report notes.

Social equality will also need to be tackled, according to the report. “As policymakers address the lack of resilience to health threats that COVID-19 has exposed, they will need to recognise that infections have been clustered in areas of social deprivation. This raises difficult and long-term societal questions that will need to be grasped alongside immediate pandemic response measures,” it says.

Officials will also face tough choices when developing a “new normal”, even those in countries with high vaccination rates.

As part of this, officials will need to continue using a range of methods to respond to outbreaks, experts advise. While there is some evidence that certain interventions have been effective, many policymakers seem to lack a “a clear understanding of the effectiveness of different approaches from basic restrictions on social interaction to more targeted measures like local lockdowns and surge testing.”

There is also a conversation to be had with citizens to consider what they will accept in terms of deaths, their risk appetite and measures to curb behaviours.

Getting on the right path

The G7 Summit was a missed opportunity for global leaders to finance, provide and share vaccine doses, the report says. Though it concedes that members committed to creating a new international pathogen surveillance network and standards for data sharing, it says that more details and funding are needed.

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected].

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