World ‘dangerously unprepared’ for future pandemics, says IFRC

Philippine Red Cross volunteers conduct mobile Covid-19 vaccination in remote areas. (Frances Noguera / IFRC)

The world is “dangerously unprepared” for the next pandemic, the Red Cross federation warned on Monday, as climate change and other crises make disease outbreaks increasingly likely.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic killing more people than any earthquake, drought or hurricane in history, countries have not learned from the disaster and remain unprepared for future health crises, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said.

“Global preparedness for the Covid-19 pandemic was inadequate and we are still living with the consequences,” IFRC secretary general Jagan Chapagain told reporters at the launch of the 2022 World Disasters report in Geneva. “Most countries were unprepared for Covid-19, and today many countries are still unprepared for future outbreaks.”

Chapagain said health experts have warned that disease outbreaks are growing more frequent due to factors such as climate change, which is creating more frequent and intense extreme weather events that countries had a “limited” ability to respond to.

“We all need to prepare now because our world is becoming increasingly hazardous, both in terms of public health emergencies and all other kinds of disasters,” he said. Chapagain noted that, in 2021, 378 disasters were recorded – higher than the 20-year average of 337 disasters per year. This did not include disease outbreaks.

The IFRC said governments were not more ready now for disease outbreaks than they were in 2019, and that countries had to be prepared for “multiple hazards, not just one”.

The report gives the example of Afghanistan as a country facing layers of complex crises spanning Covid-19, extreme weather and conflict, exemplifying the need for “multi-hazard preparedness”.

The IFRC said the country was ill-prepared to deal with Covid-19, with a weakened health system and a large proportion of the population lacking access to food, water and sanitation. It said the outlook for 2023 remained “worrying” without a “massive, sustained international effort” to resolve the humanitarian crisis and prepare for future shocks.

The organisation issued two reports jointly on Monday – the World Disasters Report and the Everyone Counts report – to make recommendations on how to mitigate future health crises on the scale of Covid-19. The reports coincided with the third anniversary of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the virus an international public health emergency.

It comes as health ministers and diplomats gather in Geneva this week to discuss the future of global health governance as the WHO contemplates whether Covid-19 is still a global emergency.

“There will be no excuse for a continued lack of preparedness after having gone through three terrible years,” Chapagain told reporters. “We know preparedness saves lives.”

The report noted that countries that had learned lessons from previous disease outbreaks had a stronger response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It gave examples of several east Asian countries such as Taiwan, Japan and Singapore that deployed strategies previously used in recent outbreaks of avian influenza in their Covid response, including contact tracing.

The IFRC said these examples proved the importance of using lessons learned from Covid in building preparedness for future pandemics.

Deepening inequalities

The IFRC said the coronavirus pandemic had thrived on exacerbated inequalities, demonstrating how poor sanitation, overcrowding, a lack of health and social services and malnutrition create conditions for diseases to thrive.

The report noted that major hazards took the greatest toll on the most vulnerable, and leaving these groups unprotected was “self-defeating”. “The world must address inequitable health and socio-economic vulnerabilities far in advance of the next crisis,” it said.

The organisation said local communities should be leveraged in responding to crises, and called for the development of pandemic response products that are cheaper and easier to store and administer.

It also said building trust, equity and local action networks were vital to prepare for the next crisis.

The report said that countries should review their legislation to ensure it is in line with their pandemic preparedness plans by the end of 2023. It also recommended that countries increase domestic health finance by one per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and global health finance by at least $15 billion per year, which Chapagain described as a “good investment”.

The IFRC chief called for health information and technologies such as vaccines to be shared more equally. He said this was something the organisation hoped would be covered in the new pandemics treaty which countries are already negotiating. There are hopes that a deal may be struck in 2024.

“The Covid-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for the global community to prepare now for the next health crisis,” said Chapagain. “The next pandemic could be just around the corner; if the experience of Covid-19 won’t quicken our steps toward preparedness, what will?”