What We Must Learn from COVID-19

With the pandemic now seemingly in the rearview mirror, policymakers must start preparing for the next public-health crisis. Today’s political leaders have a historic opportunity to foster a more inclusive global order, and they have a responsibility to ensure greater equity and effectiveness in pandemic prevention and response.

Doctor in full protective equipment, preparing a vaccine.
Doctor in full protective equipment, preparing a vaccine.


Hardship, crisis, misfortune, and mistakes often provide the most valuable insights. The COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point. For all the suffering that the virus has caused, it has also highlighted the steps that countries must take, both collectively and individually, to prepare for future global public-health emergencies. Now, with the pandemic seemingly in the rearview mirror, the question is whether political leaders around the world will take its lessons to heart.

This is not a trivial question. Over the past few decades, disease outbreaks have triggered a recurring cycle of panic and neglect among policymakers. But in light of the human, economic, and social devastation wrought by COVID-19, we can and must break this pattern.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that factors such as climate change, human encroachment on wildlife habitats, population growth, urbanization, and low-cost travel make it increasingly likely that we will face more devastating pandemics in the not-too-distant future. A 2021 study found that the “yearly probability” of extreme epidemics could “increase up to threefold” in the coming decades. It would be extremely reckless not to take decisive action now to mitigate this looming threat.

Another crucial lesson from COVID-19 is that all countries must have robust health systems capable of responding quickly and effectively to an emergency while simultaneously addressing ongoing health-care needs. Even well-resourced countries struggled to perform this complex balancing act during the pandemic, resulting in millions of deaths and severe economic damage.

Governments around the world owe it to their citizens to make significant and sustained investments in areas such as disease surveillance, outbreak-response capabilities, primary health-care services, and health-care worker training. Such investments are needed not only in wealthier countries but also in lower-income countries that cannot afford them on their own.

All of this underscores the imperative for wealthy countries to step in and provide critical assistance. Throughout the pandemic, these countries’ governments, recognizing that deadly pathogens are indifferent to national borders, repeated the mantra that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” And yet, despite this lofty rhetoric, lower-income countries found themselves last in line for diagnostics, vaccines, treatments, and other crucial supplies. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (whose board I chair) had to wait months before the COVAX facility it established in 2020 managed to overcome vaccine hoarding and export bans and start shipping significant quantities to the countries most in need.

The good news is that ensuring equitable access to vaccines and other crucial interventions is an achievable goal. There are several steps that governments can take to prepare for the next pandemic and ensure that all countries, regardless of their wealth, have the resources they need to manage the crisis.

First, rather than raising money during an emergency, innovative financing tools could secure funding in advance and ensure that it is ready to be deployed immediately. Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis showed that concentrating a large share of the world’s vaccine manufacturing in the Global North can severely hinder equitable access. With that in mind, the African Union Commission and Gavi have recently announced a joint effort to establish vaccine-manufacturing facilities in several dozen locations across Africa. This manufacturing network could minimize potential supply bottlenecks and enhance the availability of other vital vaccines, such as for cholera, for which current production fails to meet demand.

Initiatives like the pandemic accord, which is currently being debated among the World Health Organization’s member states, promise to promote greater equity and effectiveness in pandemic prevention and response. While negotiations over the details are still ongoing and will most likely continue until the agreement comes to a vote at the 2024 World Health Assembly, governments could benefit from participating in the process and should commit to abide by the accord once it is approved.

Although COVID-19 no longer dominates news headlines, it is crucial that we maintain the political will to establish equitable vaccine access and not revert to our pre-pandemic complacency. Today’s political leaders have a historic opportunity to foster a more inclusive global order, and they have a responsibility to act boldly before the next public-health emergency. Failing to do so will condemn us all to relive the traumas of the past three years.

Written by

José Manuel Barroso, a former president of the European Commission and prime minister of Portugal, is Chair of the Board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.


This article was originally published by Project Syndicate on 8 August 2023

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023. www.project-syndicate.org