Lessons from failure to coordinate a global response to better face Covid-19: Panel

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that no country can protect itself without cooperating with others, said panellists at a Temasek Foundation forum on Jan 20, 2021.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that no country can protect itself without cooperating with others, said panellists at a Temasek Foundation forum on Jan 20, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - While the world has done well in sharing scientific information to turn the tide against the Covid-19 pandemic, its efforts at coordinating a global response was disappointing, said panellists at a regional forum.

They urged countries to draw lessons from the failure to work effectively together so that they can better face future crises and mitigate the potential economic and social disruptions.

Speaking on Wednesday (Jan 20) at a forum organised by the Temasek Foundation, the four panellists weighed in on how the coronavirus pandemic has shown that no country can protect itself without cooperating with others.

Dr Sebastian Maurer-Stroh, executive director of the Bioinformatics Institute at A*Star Singapore, held up how countries around the world were forthcoming about genome sequences of Covid-19.

The Global Initiative on Sharing all Influenza Data (Gisaid), a platform which promotes the international sharing of all influenza virus sequences, has received more than 380,000 genome sequences of the coronavirus from 145 countries.

Dr Maurer-Stroh said this has helped to expedite contact tracing and paved the way for effective deployment of containment measures as well as vaccine development.

While acknowledging that the collaboration on the science front was good, Singapore's chief health scientist Professor Tan Chorh Chuan said that there was a "general failure" in coordinating a global response to the pandemic.

Had countries worked together well to prevent transmission and stop the disease from spreading across borders from the start, the coronavirus could have just been a regional outbreak, he argued.

"But because everybody else didn't do that when the regions that were first affected recovered, other people started getting outbreaks. And then you had a globally desynchronised outbreak…. which is extremely hard to contain," said Prof Tan, who is also the executive director for the office for healthcare transformation at the Ministry of Health.

His views concurred with a damning report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Monday which laid bare a year-long cascade of failures by governments and health organisations worldwide in responding to the coronavirus.

The interim report, an early blueprint for reform, highlights the faulty assumptions, ineffective planning, sluggish responses and missteps that helped fuel a pandemic that has killed more than two million around the world.

At the forum, which is part of the Temasek Shophouse Conversations series, all the panellists agreed that multilateralism is key to managing wide-scale public health crises, and urged for countries to remain committed to working together.

Dr Jemilah Mahmood, a special adviser to Malaysia's Prime Minister on public health, also lamented that multilateral cooperation for Covid-19 was a "huge disappointment", especially given how the pandemics were inevitable.

She called for the international system, especially the WHO, to be depoliticised, stressing that the best authority should drive the international response to face such challenges.

Dr Jemilah also suggested that Asean form its own health authority that could guide the response of member states to pandemics like Covid-19.

"(Such a body could) help us look at low-cost solutions for the region, and also look at pooling our resources and ideas around innovation," she said.

Supporting a regional approach to better prepare for future health crises, Indonesian ambassador to Singapore Suryo Pratomo noted that Asean had recently launched the Asean Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases, which seeks to strengthen the functions of national health agencies to prevent the spread of disease in the region.

Some of the panellists also highlighted the importance of educating people to change their behaviour to overcome pandemics. Ambassador Suryo, a former editor for the major Indonesian newspaper Kompas, said the media could play this role, while Prof Tan noted that disinformation has complicated the societal response to Covid-19.

Added Dr Jemilah: "The reality check is that it's very, very much community based. The virus starts and the disease starts in the communities, the solutions must also come from communities.

"And where pandemics have been managed well… is where communities themselves participate, because behavioural change is the key to ending pandemics. And this is something we have to learn a lot about."