13 May 2021

WHO urges preparedness for future pandemics

8:29 pm on 13 May 2021

A health expert says the restructuring of the health system could help the country's defence against future pandemics.

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker

Epidemiologist Michael Baker. Photo: University of Otago, Wellington / Luke Pilkinton-Ching​

This follows a WHO-commissioned report which said global pandemic preparedness needs urgent reform.

In their just-released review, the group identified systematic failings to protect people from Covid-19 on both national and international levels.

The Independent Panel For Pandemic Preparedness and Response issued a stern warning to the world: invest significantly in your nation's readiness or face another preventable disaster like Covid-19.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said New Zealand is well on its way.

Current Covid-19 systems, which pull together different arms of the government, demonstrated just how effective a centralised health response could be, he said

"Now that we know what this capability looks like I'm really hoping that, with the reform of the health system, we can assemble that. So it's the long term, we can institutionalise those capabilities. So we are much better off responding to future threats," he said.

The Government said health service reforms would include a new Public Health Agency which aimed to prepare for future pandemics and epidemics.

Baker hoped an all-of-government approach would be taken.

"We've not had that in New Zealand for possibly several decades. From the 1990s we systematically eroded and fragmented those capacities, to the point that we weren't in a competent situation when a pandemic hit."

But the report pointed out national preparedness would go only so far and, unless the global community worked together, it would be for naught.

A Global Health Threats Council needed to be created to ensure worldwide action, it said.

International Science Council president Sir Peter Gluckman said New Zealand needed to take charge in this area.

"New Zealand, as a globally responsible citizen, should take a significant role in promoting the multilateral restructuring that is desperately needed, not just here for pandemics but for climate change, and many other existential risks," Gluckman said.

But he wasn't optimistic global leaders would be able to effectively work together.

"We're in a stage in the geostrategic climate where nationalism is far outweighing the commitment to multilateralism. And this is something that needs a genuine multilateral approach, but at the moment where we these geostrategic games … that promote nationalism and national self-interest over-focusing on the global common," he said.

The report also warned against this, saying vaccine nationalism was running rife.

It named New Zealand among the rich countries ordering up large on Covid-19 vaccines while others struggled to get them.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, who co-chaired the international panel, told Morning Report high-income countries needed to redistribute their extra doses.

"Our message to countries like our own is to put what you don't need back into the pool. We have a huge supply problem of vaccines and there's nowhere near enough to do the job that needs to be done globally," Clark said.

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