Will the world fail to prepare for the next pandemic?

Fortunately for people here, Singapore was among the minority of countries that acted quickly.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - The pandemic is still raging, but have governments and institutions addressed it well, so far?

The progress report from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response set up by the World Health Organisation is a no holds barred, yet objective assessment of performance to date.

Although the full report will only be out in May, this interim report does point out failings and suggests practical areas for improvement at both national and global levels.

Hopefully, when a SarsCoV-3 emerges - as experts say one day it will - the world would be better prepared to tackle it.

Hopefully it will not, again, be a case of deja vu, where once the pandemic is overcome, all the lessons so painfully learnt are forgotten.

Deja vu

After Sars in 2003, a universal conclusion was that the world needs to be better prepared for the next global outbreak.

Among the first points the current report makes is: "The world was not prepared, and must do better."

The WHO report that followed Sars said: "The first and most compelling lesson concerns the need to report, promptly and openly, cases of any disease with the potential for international spread."

The Covid report says: "Public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January."

It also says: "It is clear that the volume of infections in the early period of the epidemic in all countries was higher than reported."

The WHO also was slow to call it a pandemic, doing so only on March 11. This might have slowed down responses in some countries, said the report.

The Sars report said: "Weaknesses in health systems can permit emerging infections to amplify and spread, and can compromise patient care. The strengthening of health systems thus deserves high priority."

The Covid report says: "The evidence of deficiencies in pandemic preparedness and response calls for far-reaching change for the future."

Sounds all too familiar.

The Covid independent panel headed jointly by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is all too aware of this.

Their report says: "Previous pandemic crises have prompted numerous evaluations, panels and commissions which have issued many recommendations for strengthening preparedness and response.

"Too many of those were not acted on."

The question many people are asking today is, if the measures recommended after the Sars outbreak in 2003 had been put in place, would 100 million people have been infected and more than 2 million killed by Covid-19?

The report notes: "Public health containment measures should have been implemented immediately in any country with a likely case. They were not.... only a minority of countries took full advantage of the information available to them to respond to the evidence of an emerging epidemic."

In Singapore

Fortunately for people here, Singapore was among the minority of countries that acted quickly.

Experts here had been monitoring news of a possible outbreak in China since early December 2019, with many in healthcare who were convinced the virus would come to Singapore, making quiet preparations.

A multi ministerial task force was set up in January even before the first case here was diagnosed.

While that might have appeared excessively cautious, given both the lack of international concern and no cases here at that time, it has since proven to be the correct move, prescient even.

After the painful brush with Sars when 33 people out of the 238 infected died, including several healthcare workers, Singapore built the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.

Its timely opening just months before Covid-19 arrived on our shores has enabled it to be the backbone in Singapore's fight against the pandemic.

While Singapore had been prepared for a Sars-like outbreak, Covid-19 still took the country somewhat by surprise - as evidenced by the high number of infections in foreign worker dormitories.

One lesson Singapore has learnt from previous outbreaks - and which the WHO report also points out - is the need for all sectors of society and government to work in tandem.

The report said coping with a pandemic "transcends the health sector and requires whole-of-government and whole-of-society responses. Initial evidence suggests that high-level coordination has been a key determinant of response success."

In Singapore, thanks to the early formation of the multi-ministry task force, the network was in place to cope with both the expected, and any unanticipated surprises.

Healthcare teams were sent to foreign worker dormitories and older workers who are at higher risk, were quickly moved out.

So, in spite of the high number of foreign workers infected, the death toll for the country was low, with 29 deaths.

The future

How the world copes with the next pandemic will depend on whether, this time, the lesson has been painful enough to elicit the proper response - both nationally and globally.

All the reports and recommendations in the world will not be worth the paper they are printed on, if resolutions made at the height of the outbreak go out the door with the virus.

But even before that, some immediate actions should also be implemented.

The report stressed that early case detection, contact tracing and isolation, physical distancing, limits on travel and gathering, hand hygiene, and mask wearing should continue even as populations around the world get vaccinated.

It said: "The failure to apply such measures is continuing to result in an unacceptable toll of death, illness, and transmission."

Today, the number of infections and deaths continues to rise. The report offers pointers on how this can be reduced. It is now up to the world leaders to implement them.

These include taking care of people in poorer countries, and ensuring that they too get the vaccines every country is scrambling for. As has often been said, until everyone is safe, no one is safe.

How fast the world returns to normal will depend on whether the sound advice given in the report is taken seriously and action follows.