An independent international panel of experts assembled by the World Health Organization has issued a scathing condemnation of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including how squabbling leaders wasted an entire month when it could have been prevented.
“COVID-19 is the 21st century’s Chernobyl moment,” the group wrote. “Not because a disease outbreak is like a nuclear accident, but because it has shown so clearly the gravity of the threat to our health and well-being.”
The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response says it found weak links “at every point in the chain of preparedness and response,” starting in China. “The alert system was too slow—and too meek,” the 13-member panel writes. “The World Health Organization was under-powered. The response has exacerbated inequalities. Global political leadership was absent.”
Without directly mentioning former U.S. President Donald Trump, the lengthy report refers at several points to global tensions exacerbated by powerful nations. “Coordinated, global leadership was absent. Global tensions undermined multilateral institutions and cooperative action,” the report states, adding, “WHO staff worked extremely hard to provide advice and guidance, and support to countries, but Member States had under-powered the agency to do the job demanded of it.”
The report goes on to say that when doctors in Wuhan discovered what would eventually be labeled COVID-19, the procedures set forth by the International Health Regulations were ignored. “Valuable time was lost,” they write. “Then, for the month following the declaration of the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30 January 2020, too many countries took a ‘wait and see’ approach rather than enacting an aggressive containment strategy that could have forestalled the global pandemic."
By the time the deadly virus spread, first to Italy and then across Europe and to the U.S., it was too late. “Countries with delayed responses were also characterized by a lack of coordination, inconsistent or nonexistent strategies, and the devaluing of science in guiding decision-making,” the report says.
As bad as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, the panel says it won’t be the last and sets forth seven recommendations to prevent an even worse global catastrophe linked directly to the glaring failures of the current crisis. The top priority is for preparedness for the next one, including setting up a Pandemic Framework Convention that would obligate all signing nations to follow a coordinated protocol rather than each nation focusing on their own self-interests. They also recommend making the WHO financially independent, undoubtedly to avoid situations like when Trump threatened to pull American funding from the powerful group and then followed through and exited during the height of the crisis.
The rest of the recommendations are largely logistical, including beefing up surveillance tools and agreeing in advance how supplies will be shared with vulnerable nations rather than the disjointed approach used in the current pandemic response.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a sign of how vulnerable and fragile our world is,” the report points out. “In less than a year and a half, COVID-19 has infected at least 150 million people and killed more than three million. It is the worst combined health and socioeconomic crisis in living memory, and a catastrophe at every level.” And it didn’t have to be that way.