Opinion: A global playbook for the next pandemic

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With funding from the World Bank, UNICEF delivers essential supplies to Sierra Leone. Photo by: Francis Ato Brown / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

How can countries protect themselves against the next pandemic — which will more than likely come in just a few years, according to epidemiological models?

Do the math for yourself: COVID-19, Zika, Ebola, Middle East respiratory syndrome, swine flu, and severe acute respiratory syndrome together make six pandemics and epidemics in the past 18 years. As we have so recently learned, an epidemic in one country spreads all too quickly around our interconnected world. So, the clear answer to the question is that we must write a global playbook for the next pandemic that includes all countries at various levels of development.

This playbook will require reforming the very institutions the international community has entrusted with the responsibilities for the global public goods, such as poverty eradication, health, and trade. In this particular case, the World Bank Group is a critical player whose post-pandemic reforms could be a global game-changer.

The bank group is uniquely placed to lead the international community to a new and safer world. The institution has a long history of leading global initiatives that reshape the world, from the recovery of Europe in the aftermath of World War II to supporting the transition of Eastern European and Asian economies from centrally planned to market economies.

Any global recovery and resilience-building effort will have to be coordinated under a health-development nexus that is a natural extension of the group’s mission of eradicating poverty and boosting shared prosperity. More precisely, this nexus aligns well with the bank’s renewed focus on human capital at all levels. Education and health systems are primary channels through which resilience against pandemics is built. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated that these systems failed to serve that purpose.

It is incumbent upon the World Bank Group to take a leadership role in coordinating efforts to institute pandemic-resilient global health and economic systems to deliver inclusive economic growth and the reduction of poverty for all.

The World Bank Group has a clear comparative advantage based on its global reach, its knowledge and analytical work, its relations with all of its 189 client countries, its balance sheet, and its convening power. It will have to step up for future catastrophes.

A perfect example of the bank’s reach is an envelope of $12 billion that was approved by its board of executive directors on Oct. 13. These are resources that will go to support access to COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries. This includes the purchase and distribution of vaccines, as well as testing and treatment of up to 1 billion people.

While not a panacea, access to vaccines will certainly accelerate recovery in low-income countries where services — accounting for up to 50% of gross domestic product in some places — have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. The challenge will be to ensure delivery and deployment of the vaccines within the existing logistical mechanisms.

In addition, we have learned that we can’t afford to respond to the current pandemic exclusively as a health problem but to tackle other development challenges too. We need a global system that will protect the most vulnerable.

During its 2020 annual meetings, the World Bank estimated that the catastrophes of COVID-19, locust swarms, and floods and drought will put up to 40 million people in sub-Saharan Africa at risk of extreme poverty. There is also an urgent need to ensure that lower-income countries deal with their overall economic vulnerabilities, such as the debt crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic’s impact.

The prosperity we all strive to safeguard today amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was made possible through countries’ engagements in travel, trade, and investment. We therefore need to build a global system that will deepen, not weaken, coordination, collaboration, and cooperation among a multitude of actors in a bid to improve the well-being of the global community.

This is possible only if we acknowledge that a fenced-off world makes us poorer and more exposed to pandemic diseases due to diminished cooperation and limited information sharing. In an interconnected world, infectious diseases easily transcend borders and have far-reaching impacts across countries and, worse, across generations.

COVID-19 has painfully taught us that a pandemic anywhere is a pandemic everywhere. In the event of a global public catastrophe, the first and most important line of defense is our global cooperation. Thus, shortcomings in international cooperation highlighted by the current pandemic should serve as entry points to further deepen our commitments to our shared prosperity, including building pandemic-resilient global health and economic systems.

Here’s what we should prioritize in a post-pandemic world:

First, a global guarantee of adequate and fair access to essential medical supplies and services such as personal protective equipment and internet connectivity, some of which should actually be categorized and priced as public goods.

Second, strong solidarity and commitments to tackle head-on all underlying vulnerabilities propagating the pandemic’s impact.

Third, global health and economic systems designed to work for everyone, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, income level, or location.

A pandemic-resilient world is possible. But it will not happen on its own, and it will take time to build. If we all agree that the pandemic before us is a development challenge addressing all aspects of life across all the world, it is incumbent upon the World Bank Group to take a leadership role in coordinating efforts to institute pandemic-resilient global health and economic systems to deliver inclusive economic growth and the reduction of poverty for all.

It is time for its shareholders to give the World Bank Group the mandate and the resources to don the mantle of leadership.

Editor’s note: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank Group, nor does it represent the opinion of its management team.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Anne Kabagambe

    Anne Kabagambe is the author of “A Global Playbook for the Next Pandemic.” A citizen of Uganda, she served as an executive director of the World Bank from October 2018 to October 2020, representing 22 African countries.