What Lessons Can Be Learnt from the COVID-19 Pandemic to Reinforce and Improve Global Health Governance?

What Lessons Can Be Learnt from the COVID-19 Pandemic to Reinforce and Improve Global Health Governance?

26.2.2021
DNDi_COVID-19_HopitalSaintJosephDRC_12
Foto: DNDi - Hôpital Saint Joseph (Democratic Republic of Congo).

[Post written as part of the Governance subject in the ISGlobal Master of Global Health. Martin Anderson is an honorary research fellow at the University of St Andrews, UK, as part of the Arclight team aiming to prevent avoidable blindness worldwide.]

 

In January 2020, when I first heard of a novel strain of coronavirus emerging in Wuhan, China, the subconscious view had already formed: this is another disease that will affect “others”, in “other” countries, on “other” continents. This view is the culmination of a longstanding often sub-conscious narrative which suggests certain diseases and problems only affect the less-developed ‘global south’. As a result, valuable time was lost early in the pandemic by heads of state arrogantly dismissing the global threat posed by COVID-19. Collaboration and cross-country support were shunned in favour of isolationism and blame culture at the expense of lives and livelihoods across the globe.

The biased perception of a division between the developed knowledgeable ‘north’ and a dependent ‘south’ on our planet has previously hindered coherent responses to epidemics, such as the 2014 Ebola crisis, and prevented lessons on effective global governance from being learned. This neo-colonial attitude has plagued global health governance for many years, as this perception is reiterated by the way national governments attempt to assert power on the global stage through multilateral organisations such as the UN and WHO, as well as, by often well intentioned, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who have not fully rid themselves of the ‘white man’s burden’ mentality.

This pandemic has shown us that global health bodies like the WHO need to be more responsive to input from health actors who historically have been overlooked due to lack of financial and political power in the case of states from ‘the global south’, and due to lack of official recognition by the WHO in the case of many NGOs and local stakeholders

This pandemic has shown us that global health bodies like the WHO need to be more responsive to input from health actors who historically have been overlooked due to lack of financial and political power in the case of states from ‘the global south’, and due to lack of official recognition by the WHO in the case of many NGOs and local stakeholders. The tensions between governments and non-governmental actors during this pandemic adds further weight to the argument that global health governance needs to be able to mediate amongst a wider variety of stakeholders more effectively , to reduce the impact of some of the more blatantly political rather than health-oriented moves of states during the pandemic.

The rise of earmarked financing by WHO member states for specific purposes, has tied the hand of the organisation to respond effectively and equitably to health concerns around the world and increased the politization of WHO financing. A return to more stable core funding by member states is needed to build resilience and address the ‘north-south’ imbalance. The way in which COVID-19 has spread across borders and continents, wreaking havoc to economies rich and poor, will provide a warning to high income countries that health threats in other regions of the world are ignored at their peril.

A return to more stable core funding by member states is needed to build resilience and address the ‘north-south’ imbalance. The way in which COVID-19 has spread across borders and continents, wreaking havoc to economies rich and poor, will provide a warning to high income countries that health threats in other regions of the world are ignored at their peril

A future pandemic will come again, it is only a matter of time. Acceptance of the fact that we are unable to isolate ourselves from health, economic and environmental fallouts from other geographic regions, will provide an imperative for global governance that is truly global, inclusive and able to tackle future pandemics. If we put aside instincts to blame ‘others’ and adopt the idea that the only way to solve shared suffering across borders is to develop shared solutions going forward, we can harness a sense of global connectedness and solidarity.

We need to accept the increasingly complex plurality of actors in global health and be prepared to listen to the voices of those previously overlooked or marginalised as a result of outdated world views and power dynamics. Global warming is shaping up to be the next major global health crisis where lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic on global co-operation across states and sectors will be put to the test.

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