“The world’s done with it, so let’s just move forward.”
These were Premier Doug Ford’s words as he announced his government’s plans to lift COVID-19-related public health restrictions in Ontario last month. Far from an outlier, Ford joins a growing chorus of political leaders from around the world who have decided that two years is enough time for individuals to learn to ‘live’ with the virus. The pandemic no longer poses a threat to our communities and to global health. The tyranny of masks is over.
To be sure, we now have several sophisticated tools in our toolbox to manage the risks posed by the pandemic, including effective vaccines, promising new therapeutics and enhanced methods of virus tracking and surveillance.
But these tools have not reached everyone on this planet equally. While wealthy countries hold on to COVID-19 vaccine stockpiles that may well expire before getting into arms, more than 85 percent of people on the African continent have yet to receive even a single dose of protection. After more than a year of tireless global campaigning and advocacy, global vaccine equity still remains a fixture of rhetoric in multilateral forums and political speeches.
And it may yet be erased from rhetoric too. In recent days, COVID-19’s status as public enemy number one has been displaced by a humanitarian crisis that was unthinkable scarcely two weeks ago. The chain of events set in motion by the devastating invasion of Ukraine will have dire consequences for the global pandemic response. As WHO Senior Advisor Bruce Aylward recently said, “infectious diseases ruthlessly exploit the conditions created by war.”
There are at least three reasons why he is right. First, with millions of people now on the move and health care facilities, equipment and supplies not only destroyed but even actively targeted, Europe’s fastest growing humanitarian and refugee crisis since the Second World War will inexorably increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission across the continent. Not only will this risk translate to more cases of serious illness and even death among migrants, but left unchecked, the virus will have further opportunities to evolve and potentially even evade our one shot at ending the pandemic: effective vaccines.
Second, as Western countries rush to redirect their focus and limited funds to the war and humanitarian effort in Ukraine, fewer dollars will be left for multilateral initiatives like the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, stalling the already languid progress towards getting COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines to all countries in the world.
Third, while a large majority of UN member states have condemned the aggressions perpetrated by the Kremlin, several have refrained from exhibiting overt criticism. This splintering of the international community paves the way for counterproductive manifestations of global health diplomacy at a time when solidarity is most needed to end the pandemic. Earlier this month, for instance, Lithuania canceled a decision to donate over 400,00 COVID-19 vaccine doses to Bangladesh after the country abstained from the UN General Assembly’s vote on Russia.
It would be a mistake for world leaders to treat wars and pandemics as disparate events. Both their genealogy and their trajectory are inextricably intertwined. As early as the new millennium, the UN Security Council recognized the “potential risk” that pandemics posed to security and stability. The interdependence of global health and international security has been emphasized time and again since, including in 2020 when the Security Council presciently warned that “the unprecedented extent of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.”
Pandemic threats are a given in our globalized world. In best case scenarios, they will find their way into our world when it is adequately prepared. Among other things, that means when our international community is willing to cooperate in solidarity, when laws and institutions are functioning properly, and when, to borrow from the late Paul Farmer, all countries have the “stuff, staff, space and systems” for a robust response to the outbreak. Discussions are currently underway in multilateral forums like the World Health Assembly to strengthen international laws and institutions for better pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.
Yet COVID-19 did not just find a world that was unprepared. It found a world that had been unraveling at the seams, mired in unresolved geopolitical struggles and centuries of deep-rooted inequities. It is no coincidence that in the span of this pandemic, several major crises have emerged, including a global reckoning with racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the so-called ‘truckers convoy’ protesting the weight of public health restrictions, and a renewed thirst for territorial expansionism when such impulses were thought to be fixtures of a bygone era. These events are intricately connected and symptomatic of a broader truth: solidarity and trust are essential not only to the social fabric of our communities, but also to global institutions that build our collective resilience against social, health, and security crises.
Thrilling political narratives declaring the end of the pandemic belie the international community’s inexorable march towards grim pandemic milestones. Just this week, the global death toll from the pandemic surpassed six million. The sheer human cost of this global health crisis is so vast that – in the words of journalist Ed Yong – “thinking about it is like staring into the sun.” After two years of collective struggle, perhaps it is only human nature to avert our gaze.
And yet, given the precarious state of our world today, we may well be edging with our eyes closed towards the precipice of an even greater cataclysm. Our political leaders would do well to avoid false choices. The world may be ‘done’ with COVID-19, but COVID-19 is far from done with the world. As we shift focus to an unfolding crisis, let us remember that the work on the prior one is not only far from over – but more necessary now than ever before.