By Mallory Thorpe
It’s very easy to think that something as large and catastrophic as a pandemic won’t happen to you until it does. Before 2020, the UK had not faced a pandemic as deadly as COVID-19 since the Spanish flu in 1918, and I’m sure if you asked anyone at the beginning of 2020 what would end up happening in the following months, they probably would not have believed you. It is worth noting, however, that the disbelief that a deadly and very contagious virus would spread throughout the UK and lead to over 220,000 deaths in this country alone, comes from a very privileged place. Although the UK had not faced a deadly and highly contagious disease in a number of years, this was not the experience for many other countries around the world, such as the measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2019 or the Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2014-16, among others.
The COVID-19 pandemic was more than just a health crisis and has exacerbated almost all existing inequalities. Globally there are now an additional 75 million people living in extreme poverty, a widened attainment gap between poor and richer pupils and overstretched and suffering health systems around the world, to name just a few devastating impacts of the pandemic.
Despite this, a general feeling that it’s time to move on seems to have descended over both the general public and politicians. Of course, the desire to ‘move on’ for individuals that suffered severe hardships during the pandemic and lock-down periods is understandable, but politicians and the Government should not be tempted to move on without learning from the successes and failures of the UK’s response to the pandemic both domestically and globally.
Learning from its reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic should not be merely an exercise in self-reflection, but should be treated as an urgent task to inform how the UK Government responds to a future pandemic threat to prevent the huge loss of life that we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic. The UK Covid-19 Inquiry has begun the process of holding the Government to account – and the subsequent recommendations when they are published must be embraced – but it is vital the way we talk about pandemic preparedness moves beyond discussing an abstract threat to treating it as an ongoing priority.
An under-reported fact is that the next pandemic might not be as far away as we think. In 2021, the chances of a similar outbreak to COVID-19 was put between 47% and 57% within the next 25 years. This alarming statistic is largely due to increasing population density and mobility, as well as environmental degradation as a result of human activity. The high chance that we could be facing another pandemic within the next three decades is a very scary possibility. However, by preparing now, the UK Government can work with international partners to ensure that the right systems are put in place to effectively monitor, detect and treat emerging infectious diseases before they become a pandemic threat.
‘Pandemic preparedness’ is less a single measure or policy, and more developing and strengthening an infrastructure that works at a global scale to control deadly diseases from becoming a pandemic threat. This includes disease surveillance, strong healthcare systems in each country with skilled and paid personnel, as well as adequate facilities and equipment, data and transparent communication systems between governments, global supply chains that protect everyone, and investment in vaccine research and development.
However, such measures remain grossly underfunded, and suffer from what is referred to as a ‘panic and neglect’ cycle; governments throwing money and resources at the problem when a serious outbreak occurs, and then neglecting to fund preparedness when the immediate crisis has passed. Without sustained financing, the world remains ill-equipped to prevent or respond to the next pandemic, and we lose the head-start that could be achieved.
In order to ensure sustained financing for pandemic preparedness, we should not view pandemic preparedness as an expensive insurance policy for an abstract and uncertain threat, but instead see it as something that can and does provide significant benefits to the UK. For example, investing in vaccine research and development by working with and bolstering scientific and research institutions not only ensures that we are better prepared for the next pandemic, but improves the scientific expertise in this country. This could lead to future breakthroughs, such as the development of mRNA technology, which occurred when scientists were developing the COVID-19 vaccine, and is now beginning to be trialled for cancer treatment in the UK.
With many competing priorities in the Government’s in-tray, it is vital that we, as campaigners and advocates, present the right message on pandemic preparedness by highlighting the UK’s interest in preparing now, not just to prevent the costly and deadly effects of a future pandemic, but also to deliver key Government priorities such as becoming a science and technology superpower.
With the devastating impact of COVID-19 in recent memory and clear lessons to be learned, we must convince the UK Government and parliamentarians that the time for investing in pandemic preparedness is now.