The Financial Express

Preparing for the next pandemic?

Preparing for the next pandemic?

"...2020 has shown that governments must increase investment in public health, from funding access to COVID vaccines for all people to making our systems better prepared to prevent and respond to the next, inevitable, pandemic", said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General in his New Year message.

The WHO chief lauded the 'fastest and most wide-reaching global response' to an unprecedented health emergency in human history' in the just-concluded year. An unparalleled mobilisation of science, a search for solutions and commitment to global solidarity, he said, were the hallmarks of that solidarity. 

Hopefully, the government policymakers here have listened to his speech and taken note of the important issues the WHO DG wanted them to remember and implement in the coming days.

Spending more on health and getting better prepared to handle the next 'inevitable' pandemic are issues that do deserve particular attention in most places in the world. The ongoing pandemic has laid bare the inadequacies of the health sector in both rich and poor countries in meeting any extraordinary health emergency. For obvious reasons, the lack of preparedness is more in poor countries like Bangladesh.

Even the most resourceful country on earth was found clueless about handling tests or accommodating a huge number of Covid patients during the initial months of the pandemic. The country also had faced a shortage of face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) for the health professionals and others.

The developed countries do spend a sizeable amount on health every year and they have a well-knit and efficient health system that, in most cases, offers treatment to their populations free-of-cost.

These countries have spent billions of dollars on the treatment during the ongoing pandemic. Initially, even the developed nations were caught off-guard when the virus started taking its toll. Their health facilities despite being well-organised were overwhelmed by the onrush of patients. However, over time, these countries did enhance their capacity in matters of handling Covid patients. Even during the ongoing second wave of the pandemic, the number of death is less than before despite a record number of infections being detected almost daily.

When the rich and developed countries were in a state of shock following the outbreak of the Covid disease, one can well imagine the situation in a country like Bangladesh that has a rickety health infrastructure and an equally poor health management system. The health authorities here had taken a long time to come out of their hibernation and take stock of the situation on the ground.

Besides, the lack of coordination among various government agencies during a health emergency of an unprecedented order emerged as a stumbling block to the efforts for taming inflation and handling Covid patients.

A few top notches are now telling the world their success stories, but it is hard to forget their ineptness and lack of seriousness in handling the emergency. Almost daily, they briefed the media about their plans and programmes about enhancing the capability to contain the disease. All those were largely meant for public consumption as there had been no meaningful initiatives to implement most of those plans and programmes.

But it would be unfair if one particular progress is not mentioned here. The hospitals and health professionals have notably improved their capacity as far as the treatment of Covid patients is concerned. They could gradually overcome the initial shortage of medical equipment and the lack of expertise in treating Covid patients. All the improvements have saved many lives.

Bangladesh can consider itself lucky in terms of infection rate and the number of deaths until now. The living conditions of people and the very relaxed attitude towards the health safeguard measures prevailing among its population do make the country a strong candidate for high infection as well as high fatality rates. The escape might have been due to its demographic character where the number of the elderly population is relatively low. The elderly population is found to be more susceptible to coronavirus infection and resultant death.

Though the deadly pathogen is still wreaking havoc in many countries, the New Year has emerged as a harbinger of hope. Many had doubted the fast development of vaccines effective against the virus. But they are now proved wrong by science and scientists. Many countries have already started vaccinating their populations. Bangladesh, too, is expected to follow the path by the end of this month or in the early part of next month. The world might see some amount of normalcy in most areas of life and living in the middle or the latter part of the current year.

All nations and their leadership, however, should follow what the WHO DG urged them to do in his New Year message. The Covid-19 is not the last pandemic. It could be that another is already brewing in the background and the world is not aware of it.

 Viruses are not like most other microorganisms. They are difficult to kill since they have evolved, unlike other organisms. Viruses are not alive as they do not have metabolism and the ability to reproduce, but they are not dead also. As soon as they come in contact with a host cell, they become alive. Thus, viruses remain one of the biggest threats to humanity. The Covid-19 has shown it. Deadlier ones might emerge anytime in the future.

So, for a country like Bangladesh, it is important to raise its health budget, ensure efficient spending of the money and enhance the capacity to respond to a major health emergency fast.

There should be a permanent National Health Emergency Taskforce comprising top government health officials and renowned health professionals. The taskforce should try to right all the wrongs that might prove barriers to responding to major health emergencies. Such a move, hopefully, would help save huge spending in the future.


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