With the weekly COVID-19 body count hovering around 12,000, it may be a tad early for pandemic postmortems.
Still, that’s the lowest death count recorded since the pandemic was declared on March 11, 2020. As the World Health Organization’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently, the “end is in sight.”
U.S. President Joe Biden went even further, telling 60 Minutes: “The pandemic is over.”
So, perhaps it is time to start reflecting on what the world has done wrong in responding to the worst pandemic in a century, and what we need to do to finally put COVID-19 behind us.
The Lancet Commission on lessons for the future from the COVID-19 pandemic, a blue-ribbon group of 28 global experts (with another 173 scientists contributing to the commission’s task forces), has essentially given the world’s response a big fat F grade.
The commission described COVID-19 mortality – 6.9 million officially but estimated, more realistically, at 17.2 million – as a “staggering death toll [that] is both a profound tragedy and a massive global failure at multiple levels.”
The commission’s overarching conclusion is sobering: “Too many governments have failed to adhere to basic norms of institutional rationality and transparency, too many people – often influenced by misinformation – have disrespected and protested against basic public-health precautions, and the world’s major powers have failed to collaborate to control the pandemic.”
In short, the world was not only slow to act on the threat of COVID-19 but, when it did take action, it was half-hearted and often irrational. Poor communication allowed conspiracy theories to flourish and selfish jingoism to create massive inequities.
The 48-page report even provides a “Top 10″ list of derelictions of duty: First, a lack of timely notification after the initial outbreak of COVID-19, and costly delays in acknowledging airborne exposure. Then there was the lack of co-ordination among countries, and even within countries (hello, Canada!) regarding suppression strategies. We had governments fail to adopt best practices for controlling the pandemic, a lack of support for low-income and middle-income countries, and a failure to ensure adequate supplies and the equitable global distribution of key commodities, including personal protective equipment and vaccines.
There was also the lack of timely access to accurate data on infections, deaths and viral variants, the neglect in combatting mass amounts of disinformation, and the lack of global and national safety nets to protect vulnerable populations, such as elders and people with disabilities.
And to cap off this list: the poor enforcement of appropriate levels of biosafety regulations in the lead-up to the pandemic, which raised the possibility that a laboratory leak led to the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
None of this is revelatory, but it’s pretty damning when stated so bluntly.
The important question is: What can we learn from these political, policy and public-health gaffes?
The Lancet Commission essentially calls for more global co-operation, especially between superpowers such as China, the U.S. and Russia, which seems unlikely in the current political environment.
After severely criticizing the World Health Organization, it also calls for the WHO to be given more power and more funding. Again, this seems unlikely as countries become more inward-looking.
Mr. Biden’s blunt declaration that the “pandemic is over” will undoubtedly be embraced in the U.S. and find echo around the world. It will fuel what some have called a “plague of resistance” to public-health measures.
In a few weeks, an expert committee of the WHO will decide if COVID-19 is still to be considered a “public-health emergency of international concern,” which is the closest we will ever get to an official end to the pandemic.
But wishful thinking doesn’t end a pandemic. Neither does denial, or no longer caring about who is harmed.
The big unknown is what will happen this fall, and beyond.
COVID-19 cases will almost certainly rise, given the lack of public-health measures and poor uptake of boosters. But will the increase in infections and reinfections stress the hospital system the way it has in the past? Or will the immunity we’ve developed from vaccines and infections make the coronavirus less of a threat?
Hopefully, the worst has passed. But even in a best-case scenario, the effects of COVID-19 will linger for years, in the form of long COVID and endemic disease that continues to threaten the vulnerable.
Only when the next pandemic comes along will we know if we’ve actually learned anything.