COVID-19 continues to impact the world, leaving loss and suffering in its wake. Despite the fact that we’re still battling this global pandemic, it’s not too soon to think about the next one. Because the plain truth is, there will be a “next one.” And it will be here sooner than we think.
Now is the time to prepare. To ensure we make better choices. To determine a better way forward.
A newly released report from the Lancet COVID-19 Commission can guide us. The 28-member Commission, which was formed in 2020 to address COVID’s humanitarian, financial, and public health impacts, includes experts in public policy, epidemiology, economics, science, mental health, and more. Together, this panel took a close look at why COVID was able to tear across the world, killing millions in its wake, and what we can do now to improve our response to future pandemics.
What went wrong?
The Lancet report sharply criticizes the world’s response to COVID-19, with a focus on several key areas:
- Lack of coordination and cooperation. Countries failed to cooperate, which gave the virus and its variants “a superhighway for transmission” according to Dr. Srinath Reddy, a co-author of the report. With no coherent global strategy, countries were slow to impose their own travel protocols, testing strategies, public health measures, supply chains and reporting systems.
- Inadequate preparation. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a problem in larger, richer countries such as the United States, where health officials – perhaps complacently – thought they were ready. The exception was in the Western Pacific, which had some of the lowest mortality rates and economic losses.
- Inequity. The pandemic’s profoundly unequal effect was felt not only in low-income countries, but also among groups such as frontline health workers, women, children, nursing home residents, the chronically ill, minorities, and those without health insurance.
- Public resistance. Control of the virus was hindered by substantial public opposition to basic prevention and safety measures. Resistance was seen by some as a badge of honor, stoked by social media. Inconsistent advice from the CDC and other public health agencies contributed to the lack of trust.
- Data gaps. Antiquated technology was an additional failure that exacted a heavy toll in the United States. As the New York Times recently reported, these gaps were the result of decades of underinvestment in public health, which undercut the government’s response to COVID, and now to monkeypox. Crucial data was stranded in incompatible systems that were so outmoded the information had to be typed in by hand in many cases.
How can we do better next time?
Lessons for the future include:
- Improve global cooperation. No matter how well prepared a country thinks it is, COVID showed us that preparation alone is not enough. Strong international cooperation is required.
- Strengthen the WHO. This includes giving the organization new regulatory authority, improved political support, and increased stature on the world stage. Specifically, the WHO should enlarge its Science Council with diverse representation to identify and address future emerging infectious diseases before they take hold.
- Invest in equitable, robust public health infrastructure. All countries need strong public health systems centered around primary care and universal health coverage. It’s important that these investments include the most vulnerable members of society, and help to shore up public trust. Quality health education must also become widely accessible.
- Bolster the public health workforce. Preparedness starts with an adequate workforce of nurses, midwives and health care workers. Without them, we will be stuck in a disease spiral that threatens our well-being, our security, our prosperity and our health for years to come.