We can overcome the COVID-19 pandemic by understanding our past

May 10, 2021

Written by: Javier Surasky

On January 1, 2020 China officially declared to the World Health Organization (WHO) the existence of an epidemic outbreak caused by a new virus.

The recent past: A lurking pandemic 

Their announcement came too late and a pandemic was declared short after. Criticisms of the way Beijing and the WHO handled the situation intensified. Nonetheless, there was a reality behind the scenes that we cannot escape and impacts the future: this crisis could’ve been prevented and now it is the time to figure out how we can overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.

The past can be helpful in understanding where we are and where we should go as a global society and it needs to be made visible as part of the strategy to leave behind this situation.

The media quickly identified their own “pandemic guru”: based on a 2014 TED Talk, they singled out Bill Gates as the person who had warned us of the imminent risk of a dangerous viral disease reaching global proportions. Without taking any credit for it, Mr. Gates was far from being the only one, or even the first person to warn us. In 2001, Stephen Hawking said to The Daily Telegraph: “The human race is wiped out by an apocalyptic virus before the end of the Millennium.” 

Experts in other fields also gave their opinion. In 2009, The Economist ran their May issue where their featured article – along with their cover-  wondered how scared we should be in the face of the threat of a pandemic. Their answer was very concrete: “it’s deadly serious.

There were many other warnings. The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board – WHO’s independent health surveillance and promotion entity – presented  its Annual Report on Global Preparedness for Health Emergencies in September of 2019. They warned that the risk of a pandemic was real and the world was not prepared to deal with it.

If the pandemic was foreseen, then it is easy to conclude the causes were at least partially identified, which opens a window of opportunity to find ways to overcome and avoid the repetition of similar situations in the future. To do this, we must learn from the mistakes we made.

The present: Learn to overcome the pandemic

First, we need to learn from mistakes as an essential part of the process of overcoming the pandemic. Even if we have to pay the price for unfulfilled promises regarding prevention and global health care, transparencySustainable Developmentenforcement of international law, governance and financing of sustainable development – to name a few.

Although talking about a post-COVID-19 era has become recurrent, we have not reached this state yet and we do not know what it will be like. On the other hand, we do know which paths have led us to failure, which is useful when seeking solutions.

  • The speed of progress was a reality in the crafting of the Decade of Action and Delivery, convened before the pandemic. Focused on accelerating the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, it will still be essential, since issues at the base allowed the emergence of the pandemic and can therefore be faced as part of it.
  • The ​​Build Back Better idea makes use of lessons learned and opportunities arousing from the COVID-19 crisis. It may be appropriate to retrieve the report Key propositions for building back better: lessons learned from tsunami recovery published in 2006 by Bill Clinton, in his capacity as Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for the Post-tsunami Recovery.
  • “​​Build Back Better” is slowly transforming into “Build Forward Better”, an idea that clearly indicates the foolishness of trying to return to the practices that initially led to the current pandemic, and the need to support the foundations of upcoming economic, social and environmental sustainability practices that may become engines of recovery.
Source: Own elaboration, 2021
  • The COVAX initiative for vaccine distribution faced enormous obstacles due to the selfishness and lack of vision from some leaders. However, it clearly shows the possibility of promoting multi-stakeholder work based on the new production management opportunities that existing technology provides. This will not overcome or reduce structural inequalities, but it is a good first step to work within the framework of the health emergency that could be equally useful to consolidate future models of international public goods management, based on solidarity and the different capacities of every party involved.
  • Data, data and more data. It is not about burying oneself in information. It is about acting intelligently, creating synergies and taking advantage of all opportunities in a context of crisis, financial restrictions and limited response times. Timely, quality, disaggregated and public data are needed and allow for evidence-based recovery plans, systematize and share good practices, and identify possible synergies between policies, while choosing priorities for action based on information.

The future: Learning to overcome the pandemic

Talking about a post-COVID-19 world is still science fiction or futurology. However – as we explained earlier – COVID-19 could have been prevented and we can overcome it.

The post-COVID world is not built: it is yet to be done. The decisions and actions you take today will shape it. In other words, we cannot wait for the post-COVID era to catch us out of guard to build sustainable societies, being this the best guarantee of non-repetition that we can offer future generations, and that we formally adopted by committing with the 2030 Agenda.

Facing the urgency should not lead to neglecting the medium and long terms. It is necessary to combine the urgent agenda with the Build Forward Better agenda of the future. The pandemic recovery plans that governments are preparing today are the piece that unites sustainable development and their global agendas, the Decade of Action and the achievement of results and responses to the impacts of COVID-19.

A look guided by the increasingly relevant principles of the 2030 Agenda such as “leaving no one behind”, universality, interdependence, a basis in human rights, multi-stakeholder work and policy design under integrated approaches to Sustainable Development, must be completed with greater international solidarity, but also with an efficient use of quality data to support decision-making. To contribute to this, the COVID-19 Data and Innovation Centre has been established.

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