Learning lessons from Covid will protect Africa and the world from future pandemics

Dr Sultani Matendechero, from Kenya, is a member of the Bureau for the Working Group on Amendments to the International Health Regulations (2005).

Photo credit: Pool

The 194 member states of the World Health Organization are currently negotiating the first pandemic accord. Acknowledging that the world learned many hard lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic, governments have agreed that effective mechanisms must be put in place to prevent, prepare, and better respond to the next global health threat.

The African region has been repeatedly subjected to the devastation associated with pandemics, natural disasters, and conflict. It is clear that we need to invest in responsive and resilient health systems, accompanied by strong community engagement. Strengthened health systems, societies, along with new tools and mechanisms will be invaluable in the development of the pandemic accord.

Africa has recently been exposed to multiple outbreaks of Ebola, cholera, and COVID-19, some occurring simultaneously. Despite our resource constraints, we have a wealth of experience with responding to multiple outbreaks. We have, however, been the last continent to receive supplies, despite being the one with the greatest needs. And the region continues to grapple with non-communicable diseases, and the ongoing challenges of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in the midst of Covid 19.

Nations now negotiating the accord include every country on the African continent. Further, the International Health Regulations (IHR), an overarching legal framework that defines countries’ rights and obligations in handling public health events and emergencies with the potential to cross borders, are also being amended in the wake of the pandemic. What do these developments mean?

First, it is not only the African region that needs the accord and stronger IHR. The whole world needs it, particularly to prevent outbreaks from becoming pandemics through rapid and effective collective response. But even that is not enough. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the world witnessed the best and worst of humanity. On the one hand, the development of vaccines and sharing of knowledge by scientists across the world were unprecedented. On the other hand, there was a lack of equitable access to these scientific endeavours, with countries being ostracised for sharing information.

The inequities of the distribution of Covid vaccines were more acute for many countries in the Global South, which had limited supplies and no capacity to produce vaccine to meet their needs, forcing them to the back of the queue. The sharing of pandemic pathogens and genetic sequencing contributes to risk assessment as well as prompt introduction of containment measures and R&D for new products. Such sharing should not lead to punitive measures nor be a disincentive for those who willingly provide such information.

A pandemic accord would enhance collaboration, improve the unity of the world’s response, address the equity with which that response is carried out, and increase the speed and efficacy of preparedness and response measures.

In addition to five negotiating sessions on the pandemic accord that were held by all Member States of WHO, with a sixth to be held in July, the African region has convened region-specific consultations and sessions devoted to specific topics such as equity. Three sessions on proposed amendments to the International Health Regulations have also been held with a fourth to be held in July.

The accord represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect the world from a future pandemic. It is vital that we heed the lessons of Covid-19 to make quantum improvements in the way the world prevents, prepares for, and responds to infectious disease threats.

These 194 sovereign governments—and they alone—can decide what should be included in the accord and how the International Health Regulations are amended. The accord and the amendments will be presented to the World Health Assembly in May 24.

Please join us in supporting your government to help determine the best possible measures to protect us all from the next pandemic. Everyone, from children to parents to health workers, all stand to benefit. 

By Dr Precious Matsoso, from South Africa, is the Co-chair of the Bureau of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body to Draft and Negotiate a WHO Convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response.

Dr Sultani Matendechero, from Kenya, is a member of the Bureau for the Working Group on Amendments to the International Health Regulations (2005).