WHO report indicts rich nations for tepid response to pandemic in initial period

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By: Marc Vandepitte

A new World Health Organisation report, prepared by a panel of experts, begins with the findings that the world was totally unprepared for this pandemic. For decades, however, it had been predicted that such a viral pandemic would inevitably come our way.

Five years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) even stated that there was an urgent need for more research into corona viruses. At the time, such research was not profitable for pharmaceutical giants. As a result, hardly any research had been done. The pursuit of profit had prevailed over public interest.

Then the pandemic arrived. In early January 2020, a new coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan. On January 24, it turned out this virus could be transmitted from person to person and that it was also highly contagious. One week later, on January 30, the WHO declared an international medical emergency.

Some countries did not wait that long and reacted immediately. Vietnam, for instance, introduced social distancing and stricter border controls from mid-January onwards. As early as January 12, Taiwan had sent two epidemiologists to Wuhan to study the virus. In Africa, foreign travellers were systematically screened in many airports from the beginning of February.

The WHO and other agencies repeatedly issued warnings and pointed out the seriousness of the situation. Most Western countries, however, thought they were untouchable. “In far too many countries, this signal had been ignored,” the report states.

The Western countries did not take real action until mid-March, after the stock markets had collapsed (on March 12). According to the panel “the reality is that only a minority of countries took full advantage of the information available to them to respond to the evidence of an emerging epidemic.”

Thus, very precious time, at least a month and a half, had been lost. Yet every day counts at the beginning of an epidemic. In the initial phase of the first wave, before protective measures had been imposed, the virus multiplied at a rate of ten every ten days. In other words, if the Western authorities had intervened ten days earlier, the infection rate (the curve) and the death toll would have been ten times lower.

Due to this late response, the intensive care units filled up quickly, at the expense of other patients requiring urgent treatment. This also increased the total death rate. The consequences were correspondingly as the graph shows. Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of the renowned medical journal The Lancet, therefore concludes that most Belgian coronary casualties could have been avoided. The situation will not be much different in neighbouring countries.

The report also blames healthcare sector officials for being slow in responding to early stage indications that people could spread the new coronavirus without any symptoms. Reports from China and Germany, however, had documented this phenomenon at an early stage. But leading healthcare authorities, including the WHO itself, nevertheless gave contradictory and sometimes misleading advice.

Most Western governments refused to learn from the experiences of countries that were hit first. Evident measures such as social distancing or wearing face masks became the subject of sterile political debates in our regions. Lockdowns were undebatable, because they did not comply with our “Western values” — until, of course, there was no other alternative.

In many countries early in the pandemic there was a shortage of essential supplies such as face masks, protective clothing, oxygen, ventilators, etc. The market is apparently inefficient in dealing with an unforeseen health crisis. Years of neoliberal austerity had also caused a shortage of (adequately trained) available medical staff, as became painfully clear in the residential care homes in Belgium and elsewhere.

With few exceptions, governments have failed to establish a high-performance system of testing, tracking and isolation needed to control Covid-19. In Belgium, this system still does not work 100 per cent.

In the West the population’s distrust of their governments was already quite high. The clumsy Covid policy only increased this lack of confidence. Yet such confidence is essential to achieve good results in a pandemic fight. These are lessons from the Asian countries’ experiences too.

As a result of this lack of confidence, there is less compliance with measures, conspiracy theories are proliferating and many misconceptions are circulating. The former leads to more infections and an extension of the sanitary measures. The two other factors cause an increase in vaccine scepticism which is alarming in many countries.

The WHO report says: “The Covid-19 crisis has revealed a trust deficit between people, institutions and leadership in some countries. The trust deficit has also fuelled the ‘infodemic’ and set up a vicious cycle of disinformation and inadequate response. The profound trust gap combined with the use and impact of social media (…) illustrates once again the failure of analogue responses [newspapers, TV, radio…], in a digital age.”

According to the report, governments were and are guided too much by economic considerations, thinking that excessively strict measures would harm the economy too much. Wrongly.

“A preliminary observation by the panel is that economic outcomes have been better in economies where strict public health control measures have been implemented effectively. In those countries health outcomes (…) have been substantially better. The same pattern appears to apply to the pace of recovery, with more strict public health measures being followed by stronger economic recoveries.”

The lack of decisive action has led to months of (semi-) lockdowns and uncertainty in the markets. This cost the global economy 7 per cent, or $6,000 billion, last year. “This is clearly a case where billions can save trillions,” the report concludes.

In the past, WHO secretary general Tedros Ghebreyesus has repeatedly expressed his anger at the rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines. While rich countries will have enough doses this year to vaccinate their citizens three to five times, a large proportion of the population in the poorest countries will not receive any dose.

The WHO report is very critical about this: “The full potential of vaccines cannot be realised if narrow national interests and economic power determine who gets access (…) We cannot allow a principle to be established that it is acceptable for high-income countries to be able to vaccinate 100 per cent of their populations while poorer countries must make do with only 20 per cent coverage. Whether you happen to be born in Liberia or New Zealand or anywhere else, should not be the factor that determines your place in the vaccine queue.”

Moreover, vaccine nationalism is short-sighted. In Tedros’s words: “The longer we wait to provide vaccines, tests and treatments to all countries, the faster the virus will take hold, the potential for more variants will emerge, the greater the chance today’s vaccines could become ineffective and the harder it will be for all countries to recover. No-one is safe until everyone is safe.”

The report confirms this view: “Only the application of principles of universality and equity will be sufficient to enable the world to come out of this crisis together.” (IPA Service)

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