Building “The World Together” from 2022

The Second Special Session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) which ended at the beginning of the month appears to have set the stage for building the world together in what might very well be an age of pandemics.

This was based on the resolution that emerged from the only substantive item on the WHA agenda:

Consideration of the benefits of developing a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response with a view towards the establishment of an intergovernmental process to draft and negotiate such a convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response, taking into account the report of the Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies (WGPR).

After taking the report of WGPR into consideration, Member States of the World Health Organization (WHO) passed “The World Together” which captures a shared commitment to reaching an international agreement “to address gaps in preventing, preparing for, and responding to health emergencies.” This Health Assembly’s resolution also enabled the establishment of “an intergovernmental negotiating body to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.”

The Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) will hold its first meeting before 1 March. It will then guide a 2-year negotiation process towards the adoption of an international agreement on pandemic preparedness and response, or a “pandemic treaty” as it is more often described.  

The idea of a “pandemic treaty” was first mooted towards the end of 2020. The scale and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed how unprepared world leaders were for preventing or controlling pandemics. Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization had also pointed out that we might just be entering an age of pandemics.

Economic activities have led to what some have described as “the revenge of nature”, in various forms. One of these is the rapid increase in the rates and scale of zoonosis (i.e., transmission of diseases from animals to human beings). SARS, bird flu, Ebola, Zika, Nipah, and now COVID-19 are just the few more prominent examples in the twenty first century.  Seventy five percent of all emerging infections over the last two decades have been zoonotic.

These economic activities have been driven by the profit motive in several sectors including agriculture, where big farms have become breeding grounds for big flu and construction, where reclamation of wilderness have increasingly brought humankind into contact with disrupted habitats of bats and other animals. These same economic interests contribute significantly to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. Interestingly, for-profit concerns still manage to rip off society in quests for solutions to global health emergencies.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has left more people poorer than they were two years ago, 500 people became billionaires for the first time, according to Forbes. These include “40 new billionaires who got rich fighting COVID-19.” Within the ranks of these “COVID-19 billionaires” are nine people involved in vaccine development (with over $1 billion of public funds).

This is indefensible, as things could have been different. PSI, as well as several civil society organizations have supported the call initiated by South Africa and India for waiver of COVID-19 vaccines intellectual property rights, and which has been endorsed by over 100 countries’ governments. It is curious that some of the most vocal governments in support of a pandemic treaty have also been the backbone of resistance to this popular call for the TRIPS waiver at the World Trade organization (WTO).

The Geneva Global Health Hub captured the contradictions which have marked the pandemic treaty discourse in its research titled “The Politics of a WHO Pandemic Treaty in a Disenchanted World” which was issued a week to the WHA. It shows how a neoliberal perspective of health security overshadows the needed human right to health approach that should inform pandemic preparedness and response as part of a broader strengthening of universal public health systems. It also shows how this creates the room for sharpening social and health inequities between the richer countries in the Global North and the developing world of the Global South.

PSI has consistently called on governments and the international community to put people over profit and ensure that health as a human right comes before the wealth of a handful of people, at the expense of the lives and wellbeing of billions of people. This perspective will inform our multi-faceted engagement with the pandemic treaty process in the coming period, including as a non-state actor in official relations with the WHO. “Vaccine apartheid” is an emblematic demonstration of the need for us to build a strong momentum of united voices and forces genuinely committed to building a better world together, if the pandemic treaty is to actually go beyond the limitations of “health security” politics.

As 2022 beckons, we must stand firm to fight for well-funded and adequately staffed universal public health systems, as the bulwark for pandemic preparedness and indeed for the realization of access to quality health as a fundamental human right. We must continue to make the connections between the economic system which puts profit first and last and the state of the health of billions of people and the Earth, and fight to change these.

We have a better world to win together, if we unite and fight.