COVID-19 'Was A Preventable Disaster,' WHO-Ordered Report States

Calling COVID-19 “a terrible wake-up call,” an independent review panel says national and international leaders failed to respond adequately to the pandemic. Here, members of the Bavarian state Parliament sit among clear panels in Munich in October.

Peter Kneffel/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Peter Kneffel/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed dangerous failings on the national and international scale, according to an independent review ordered by the World Health Organization. The review found a range of problems, from a slow initial reaction to the coronavirus to “weak links at every point in the chain of preparedness and response.”

The coronavirus found a world vulnerable to the worst effects of a pandemic despite warnings from experts and a string of recent global health threats, from SARS and Ebola to Zika, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response says.

COVID-19 was “a preventable disaster,” the panel said as it released its report.

Circumstances have not improved in the past year, the panel notes: “the system as it stands now is clearly unfit to prevent another novel and highly infectious pathogen, which could emerge at any time, from developing into a pandemic.”

Problems with the global response to the pandemic began early. The WHO waited too long to declare a public health emergency of international concern, the panel says, after an initial cluster of cases were reported in December of 2019.

National governments also wasted precious time, the report says, calling February 2020 “a lost month” when countries could have been acting to contain the coronavirus and prevent the pandemic’s worst effects.

“Global political leadership was absent,” the independent experts say.

“The combination of poor strategic choices, unwillingness to tackle inequalities, and an uncoordinated system created a toxic cocktail which allowed the pandemic to turn into a catastrophic human crisis,” according to the panel.

COVID-19 has now claimed more than 3.3 million lives, obliterated trillions of dollars in production and worsened inequalities around the world.

Identifying a systemic issue, the report says the WHO lacks the power to investigate and act swiftly when confronted with potential outbreaks.

“Technical expert missions can be dispatched to individual countries only with their permission, and a system of preauthorization of missions has not been established,” the report says. “Often lengthy negotiations with governments for access by missions are required after an outbreak has been notified.”

The panel was convened last September, months after members of the World Health Assembly voted to require the WHO to order an independent review of the global response to the health crisis. The 13-member body is co-chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

“Our message is simple and clear: the current system failed to protect us from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sirleaf said.

“The shelves of storage rooms in the U.N. and national capitals are full of reports and reviews of previous health crises,” she added. “Had their warnings been heeded, we would have avoided the catastrophe we are in today. This time must be different.”

Calling COVID-19 “a terrible wake-up call,” the panel issued a string of recommendations, including a call for high-income countries to provide at least 1 billion vaccine doses to middle-income countries and more than 2 billion doses by the middle of 2022.

The panel is also urging the formation of a Global Health Threats Council and a system for outbreak surveillance that is based on full transparency. And individual countries must also do more now, the report says, to prepare for the next crisis.

Bill Chappell
Author: Bill Chappell

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