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'We Could Have Prevented COVID-19,' Says WHO-Commissioned Report

A 'myriad of failures' led to a global catastrophe, it says.

'We Could Have Prevented COVID-19,' Says WHO-Commissioned Report
A man in a gasmask and protective suit under the blue sky. happyphoton / iStock

The COVID-19 pandemic was and remains a horrible disaster, but it may also have been a preventable one, potentially sparing millions of lives globally, if everyone had reacted more quickly, according to an independent and high-level panel of the World Health Organization initially reported by The Guardian.

We're not here to point fingers, but global leaders could do better to ensure that there is no next time for something like the coronavirus crisis. But we also must be wary of overcorrections, where fundamental losses are forced on the quality of human life for the average citizen.

Most countries 'were not prepared' for the COVID-19 crisis

The panel's report was chaired by the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, along with Liberia's former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and together they found "weak links at every point in the chain," according to The Guardian report. The duo also said inconsistent preparation and systemic underfunding caused the global alert system to be slow to the draw, and not loud enough — leaving the World Health System without the authority it needed to take requisite action. The report concluded that all of these factors led to a worsening state of inequality worldwide. "Global political leadership was absent," it said.

Clark went on to describe the situation we experienced in February 2020 as "a month of lost opportunity to avert a pandemic, as so many countries chose to wait and see". This hesitancy proved to be the wrong call. "For some, it wasn't until hospital ICU beds began to fill that more action was taken. And by then it was too late to avert the pandemic impact," added Clark. "What followed then was a winner takes all scramble for PPE and therapeutics."

"Globally, health workers were tested to their limits and the rates of infection, illness and death soared and continue to soar," said Clark. "The situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented," said Sirleaf about the trajectory of the coronavirus crisis. "An outbreak of a new pathogen, Sars CoV-2 became a catastrophic pandemic that has now killed more than 3.25 million people, and continues to threaten lives and livelihoods all over the world."

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"It is due to a myriad of failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response," said Sirleaf in the report. "This was partly due to failure to learn from the past." An adequate response to a global pandemic (if such a thing exists) requires urgent action, she continued. "There are many reviews of previous health crises that include sensible recommendations. Yet, they sit gathering dust in UN basements and on government shelves [...] Our report shows that most countries of the world were simply not prepared for a pandemic."

It's too late to change the past, but we can always learn from history

Crucially, the WHO director-general commissioned this report, on the injunction of member states, who called for an impartial review at the World Health Assembly of what transpired and what went wrong during the official responses to the COVID-19 crisis. In the report, the panel calls for substantial changes to bring heads of state closer together, to collaborate their oversight of national preparedness for pandemics — so that every tool and financial resource is made available when the time comes. In short, they want a WHO with faster reflexes and sustained resourcefulness, in addition to a renewed commitment from the leaders of well-off countries to share their supplies of vaccines with global regions that will inevitably struggle to support their constituent populations.

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While it's too late to change the past, we can always learn from history. The report emphasizes how China detected, identified, and promptly warned the world when it emerged near the end of 2019. "When we look back to that period in late December, 2019, clinicians in Wuhan acted quickly when they recognized individuals in a cluster of pneumonia cases that were not normal," said Sirleaf. Once the alarm was sounded locally, surrounding areas and countries learned about the radical virus rapidly, but action was sluggish. While it's hard to argue that the world's leaders couldn't have been more prepared for the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, it's also important to be wary of overcorrections — where precautionary steps can infringe on social realities that harm the quality of life for average citizens who lack deep pockets. Either way, the world faces serious questions in the coming years.

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