Covid 19 coronavirus: Helen Clark on how the pandemic can be beaten

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark says the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to wreak havoc globally unless rich nations “share the burden” and help vaccinate poorer countries.

“If we’re to end this pandemic, we need 70 per cent of the global population (according to the head of the World Health Organisation) vaccinated by the time the G7 meets in June next year. On the level of [vaccine] pledge we’re seeing, and we’re not going to meet that,” she said in a webinar last night hosted by the Helen Clark Foundation.

“That means this disease is going to carry on in pandemic phase – which is ghastly. We need to see it coming off the accelerating pandemic, down to the point where it becomes somewhat endemic, and ideally, if more countries follow the approach of New Zealand and Australia – squashing it, eliminating it where it appears – we might even see an end to it one day.

“But the redistribution of existing vaccine orders from the high-income countries like ours is clearly important.”

The webinar was a conversation between Clark and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who also voiced his concern about the lack of will among rich nations to collectively end it.

“Only 1 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa has been vaccinated, but 70 per cent of the United Kingdom … now for 1 per cent to go up to 70 per cent, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of vaccines that are simply not promised to Africa at the moment.

“We’ve got 42 million vaccines into Africa, and we need 800 million.”

Brown said the pledge from the recent G7 meeting to share at least 870 million vaccine doses amounted to a moral failure.

“That’s not enough. There are 11 billion doses needed [worldwide]. The money put on the table was about … US$7 billion at most. We needed US$50 billion to pay for this plan, which includes testing and protective equipment for the poorer countries.

“This was a missed opportunity, but also something of a moral failure because we had this chance here, with all of them together, the richest countries, to do something.”

Unvaccinated parts of the world will lead to increased chances of more mutations, he said.

“If we don’t vaccinate the world quickly enough, then the disease will continue to spread. It will mutate and it will come back to haunt any country and every country – and not just those where you are not vaccinated.

“We will need a plan to vaccinate the whole world, and it will need to be underwritten by the richest countries.”

Brown said doing so was a financial no-brainer.

“A vaccine costs on average about US$5. But the cost of not vaccinating is economic disruption, loss of jobs, trade that can’t resume, and the whole economy not able to run at full capacity. The IMF have calculated that we would save US$9 trillion by 2025 if we vaccinated.

“So it’s not as if there was a financial barrier to doing this. It was actually a lack of willpower on the part of leaders … You cannot have a world divided between the vaccinated who is safe and rich, and the unvaccinated who are poor, and at risk of dying.”

Clark urged nations to empower the World Health Organisation in ways she recommended in her independent report – commissioned by the WHO – into the global pandemic response.

“Our report does not say that the WHO failed. We say the system in which it was forced to operate was designed to fail. The WHO does not have the power to demand immediate access with a disease outbreak. It should have that power. It doesn’t have the power to publish information from countries without the country’s consent. It needs that power.

“It isn’t empowered to act in a precautionary way where it sees something very worrying and where you have a respiratory pathogen, as this was. You need to be able to act in a proportionate way, but the International Health Regulations steer towards the careful accumulation of evidence.

“The world’s moving faster than that. This is not the Middle Ages, when a virus travelled on photo by donkey. It’s on the next plane.”

Brown agreed said empowering the WHO might mean “outbreaks in the future, but you would not have pandemics”.

“That’s what we must aim for, that even if there are diseases that we can immediately identify, we will not allow them to get out of control.”

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