NEW YORK – Global health leaders and experts urged nations to improve their preparedness and ability to respond to global pandemics in ways that go well beyond the health sector, even as political will to handle the COVID-19 pandemic and other health crises seems to be lagging.
“Pandemic issues go far wider than health,” former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark told a meeting that she moderated on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly’s annual high-level gathering in New York City.
The event, hosted by members of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, the government of New Zealand, and the Pandemic Action Network, focused on stories of effective leadership seen during the COVID-19 pandemic and other complex health threats, as well as the leadership needed to prevent and mitigate future health crises. Clark had co-chaired the panel along with former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Panel member and International Rescue Committee President David Miliband said the world needs “coherent global leadership” because it is not doing what’s needed to prepare.
“We are not preparing for the next pandemic, we haven’t even finished the business of addressing the current pandemic either, at a global, national, or local level,” said Miliband.
“Every part of society is impacted by a pandemic,” he said, “and we see a need for leadership at a global level, just as this leadership was needed at the national level and the regional level to step up and deal with pandemic preparedness and response effectively.”
Using lessons learned from the pandemic to ‘strike while the iron is hot’
Clark, in her opening remarks, pointed out an opportunity to use the lessons learned from the pandemic and other health crises for the future.
“We have to strike while the iron is hot,” she said. “We need to incorporate [these lessons] in an architecture which will be more fit for purpose next time.”
Clark and Sirleaf have pushed for nations to use the lessons that have been learned from the almost 2-½ year old COVID-19 pandemic and to reform the world’s pandemic response, along the lines of the recommendations in their report last year, Make it the Last Pandemic.
The panel included insights from current New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on how she led her country through COVID-19, and from Sirleaf on handling the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic.
‘False sense of security’ in early days of pandemic in New Zealand
In recounting the earliest days of New Zealand’s response to the pandemic, Ardern said many people felt a “false sense of security” during the nationwide lockdown and pandemic restrictions.
Following reports of confirmed COVID-19 cases in February and March 2020, New Zealand closed its borders to non-citizens and non-residents, and enacted a series of restrictions on movement, social gatherings, and economic activities.
While initially the New Zealand government’s elimination strategy was effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19, community outbreaks occurred in the months that followed.
This year, New Zealand has gradually begun to open its borders again and relax its pandemic measures. Ardern said politicians are very rarely confronted with a problem like this to solve, with so much incomplete information.
“What sits in the politician’s mind — our job is to give confidence, to give comfort, to lead with confidence and to give a sense of assurance to your population when that’s what they’re seeking from you,” she said.
Clark also New Zealand’s lack of experience with a recent pandemic also was a factor; it was left to Ardern, said Clark, to “invent as she went along, and learn as she went.”
As she made and announced her decisions, Ardern also made clear to the public the limits of the information she had: what was known or still unknown about the pandemic.
Coordination and communication through sectors during the Ebola epidemic in Liberia
Sirleaf’s experience with the Ebola epidemic in Liberia also hinged on effective communication and timely information to stop the spread of the disease.
While the start of the 2014 – 2016 outbreak of Ebola in Liberia was relatively slow, case numbers soon multiplied and began to grow exponentially. As president, Sirleaf declared a three-month state of emergency and announced strict measures aimed at getting cases down.
Reflecting on the outbreak, however, Sirleaf noted the need to address the public’s general lack of trust in government during those times as it tried to impose restrictions to control transmission.
“We had to do more [than impose restrictions],” she recalled. “[We needed to make sure to address] communication to people, so that they knew exactly what was happening, tell them the truth, and [tell them] what sort of responses we were able to give.”
Sirleaf said coordination among different parties was needed to deal with issues ranging from health to education to public information, so that “they were all speaking from the same page.”
As a result of these efforts, Liberia was reported to have fought Ebola in “record time.”
Inclusivity in leadership needed in pandemic preparedness
The panel also addressed a need for more inclusive leadership that shifts the focus away from high-income nations and instead uplifts underrepresented and marginalized communities.
“Yes, we need leadership, but we need the advisors to those leaders to come from the communities who are most impacted,” said Dr Ayoade Alakija, special envoy to the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-Accelerator).
Dr Raj Panjabi, a special assistant to US President Biden and senior director for global health security and biodefense at the White House, said the world must invest more in supporting communities.
“Outbreaks start where? In communities. And where do they end? In communities,” said Panjabi.
In that regard, global health leaders urged nations to follow the advice of scientists but do more consider citizens’ voices and address societal issues such as gender equity.
“We are tired of meetings. We are tired of conversations,” Sirleaf summed up. “We need to be guided by scientists. We need to listen to people. We need action!”
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