Former Irish President Mary Robinson, left, and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, both members of Elders, "an independent group of global leaders working for peace, justice, human rights and a sustainable planet" founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007, hold an interview to discuss the group's progress, Wednesday Sept. 20, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
NEW YORK — If another pandemic happens, the world will again be unprepared.
That’s the bleak assessment of former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, who co-chaired the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, after the U.N. General Assembly held a high-level summit aimed at heading off another pandemic. The upshot: Have another meeting.
Other pandemic experts who tracked months of negotiations on the 13-page declaration adopted by the assembly’s 193 member nations were disappointed, too.
“I think it’s fair to say that the declaration is a missed opportunity,” Clark said in an interview with The Associated Press on the sidelines of the General Assembly’s high-level leaders’ meeting. “It has many pages and paragraphs and only one firm commitment and that is to hold another high-level meeting in three years’ time.”
Clark, who addressed last week’s summit, is the newest member of the group of former world leaders founded by the late Nelson Mandela known as The Elders. She said a key problem is the declaration’s main focus on health.
The COVID-19 pandemic killed some 24 million people, but it also set back U.N. goals for 2030 on a wide variety of issues including eliminating extreme poverty and hunger, ensuring a quality secondary school education for every child and achieving gender equality, she said. Clark also ticked off the catastrophic economic impacts of the pandemic: a $25 trillion loss to the global economy, and debt and default enveloping many developing countries.
Listening to health ministers, the majority of speakers at the summit, Clark said many of them missed the point: Pandemics don’t impact just health; they impact many different facets of people’s lives, and government operations.
“It was clear that they should have been taking the overarching view,” she said. But “they went down quite a narrow track to talk about health.”
The declaration that was adopted did signal the importance of taking action to prepare for the next pandemic. In its “Call to Action,” the General Assembly’s political declaration commits countries “to scale up our effects to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.”
To do this, it calls for actions starting with strengthening regional and international cooperation “at the highest political levels and across all relevant sectors.” The aim, it said, should be “to overcome inequities and ensure that sustainable, affordable, fair, equitable, effective, efficient and timely access” to vaccines and other medical countermeasures is possible — and to ensure high-level attention across many sectors.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the U.N. World Health Organization, called the declaration “a historic milestone.” He welcomed the commitment by leaders to provide the clout and direction needed so WHO, governments and others can support “the global health emergency health architecture that the world needs.”
The Pandemic Action Network, a coalition of over 350 organizations focused on preventing and tackling future pandemics, agreed that it was “a historic moment” for leaders to signal the importance of collective action. Nevertheless, it wasn’t roundly complimentary.
“Although we are pleased that they overcame geopolitical tensions that threatened the passage of any declaration, we remain disappointed by the compromise text that lacked clear resolve,” the network said in a statement. The political declaration, the network said, “was a missed opportunity for leaders to make ambitious commitments to prevent the next pandemic and enshrine accountability for the future.”
The Pandemic Action Network, Clark and others were also critical that most leaders attending the General Assembly’s annual high-level meeting sent their health ministers to the summit and didn’t come themselves.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tried and failed to get the 20 major world economies to coordinate a global response to the COVID-19 pandemic after it started in early 2020.
While rapid testing and the quick development of vaccines are notable achievements, the U.N. chief said, he also bemoaned a lack of preparedness, a disproportionate impact on the world’s poorest and vaccine hoarding by the richest nations.
“We must not repeat the mistakes of the past when the next pandemic strikes — as we all know it will — and other health threats emerge,” Guterres said.
Clark said the panel she co-chaired with former Liberian president and Nobel peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf advocated strong leadership and establishment of a global health threats council appointed by the General Assembly, with representatives from the world’s regions. That, Clark said, would be “a voice for ongoing mobilization of political momentum and will for preparedness and response, and for financing.”
Guterres has called world leaders to a “Summit of the Future” at their annual global meeting next September. Clark said he has put on the agenda the idea of a leader-level body for complex emergencies. If that group could prepare not only for pandemics but food, security and climate emergencies as well, she said, “there could be some possibility in this.”
“But if it’s an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, it can’t do the job required,” she said.
Right now, “we’re well into this the cycle of panic and neglect,” Clark said. “We’ve been through the panic with COVID. Now we’re in the neglect.”
“If there’s another outbreak of a pandemic tomorrow, we’re no better prepared,” she said, “and arguably worse off.”
Edith M. Lederer, chief U.N. correspondent for The Associated Press, has been covering international affairs for more than 50 years.
Amidst record-high temperatures, deluges, droughts and wildfires, leaders are convening for another round of United Nations climate talks later this month that seek to curb the centuries-long trend of humans spewing ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
TEL AVIV, Israel — A truce between Israel and Hamas entered its fifth day on Tuesday, with the militant group promising to release more civilian hostages to delay the expected resumption of the war and Israel under growing pressure to spare Palestinian civilians when the fighting resumes.
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