Of Priorities and Pandemics
By Charles Goerens, Member of the European Parliament and Vice-Chair of Friends of the Global Fund Europe
For most Europeans, pandemics are either a thing of the past or they happen elsewhere, but not in Europe. Not until now. As the coronavirus consumes our attention and forces us to change our lives, it is time to reflect on how we see and react to risks of this nature at home and abroad. It’s time to get our priorities right. No country is perfectly immune and fully prepared to face the threat of an epidemic. No country can completely close itself off. For the reality is that in our hyper-connected world, we are all vulnerable to pandemics.
This was the conclusion of a Global Health Security Index launched in 2019 by John Hopkins University and The Economist Intelligence Unit. National health security in all countries is “fundamentally weak”. Whether rich or poor, every country has gaps to be addressed.
As we mark this year’s World Tuberculosis Day, we are poignantly and doubly reminded of this in the coronavirus crisis and the not-yet-won fight against TB. While it may not be headline news, tuberculosis remains the world’s deadliest infectious disease, having killed 1.5 million people in 2018. In fact, 4,000 people die from TB every day. Drug-resistant forms of TB are a major public health threat, a dangerous form of “the new normal” of anti-microbial resistance. Only 3 out of 5 people survive extremely drug-resistant TB.
Despite the above and other numerous warnings of experts and the increasing number of outbreaks such as, SARS, Zika, Ebola and virulent strains of influenza in recent years, most of our political leaders have downplayed and ignored the risks. And while it may be inconvenient to highlight this now, even longstanding epidemics such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria continue to threaten the most vulnerable and impoverished. Indeed, despite a strong decade of progress, the three epidemics combined still kill 2.6 million people per year.
But I do not want to play the blame game. Instead of pointing fingers, we should be urgently working on how to strengthen our response, standing firm in solidarity. It is not only the better way, it is the only way if we want to live in a prosperous society with a robust health system that can respond rapidly and effectively to outbreaks. It is evident that even in Europe we are struggling with a coordinated response to the coronavirus.
But more than ever, we must break the cycle of panic and neglect that seems to accompany each outbreak. We all must invest more in pandemic preparedness and fighting infectious diseases. Who wants to imagine a virus or microbe that spreads just as fast the coronavirus but only deadlier like Ebola or multi-drug resistant tuberculosis? That’s an awful, no good scenario.
Health is a vital global public good which requires our constant and utmost vigilance and should always be a priority in our policies and programmes. Unfortunately, it is not.
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is a great example of what we can achieve when we rise above our differences to unite and take bold action against severe global public health threats.
Since its founding in 2002, the Global Fund and its partners have saved 32 million lives. For tuberculosis, it is the world’s largest international funder of programmes, having put 5.3 million people on treatment in 2018. A top priority to minimize the TB threat is to detect and treat the estimated 3 million people who are “missed,” that is potentially neither diagnosed nor treated, and thus capable of transmitting TB further. Moreover, the Global Fund has an extremely important role to play in resource-scarce countries burdened by tuberculosis, including multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, one of the main causes of deaths related to anti-microbial resistance worldwide.
And with annual investments of US$ 1 billion, the Global Fund is the world’s largest multilateral investor in the critical components of health systems, such as testing equipment, supply chain management, data systems and healthcare workers, which can be used to make health systems more resilient and responsive, especially in times of crises. Indeed, the Global Fund has enabled some of its grants to be redirected to help countries respond immediately to the coronavirus pandemic.
Our humanity is being tested and will be tested not only in the days to come, but also in the years to come. For somewhere out there is the next virus or bacteria, waiting for the right combination of conditions to enable it to spread, to go global. Will we be ready?
In essence, solidarity is smart science and benefits all countries and all people. Serving the most vulnerable increases our collective protection and prosperity. It is an investment in our common humanity. It is an investment in our present and in our future.
It’s time we continue to build on successful partnerships like the Global Fund even while we continue to support their crucial work in saving lives.
And it’s time we truly learn our lessons and prioritize smart, sustainable investments in health at home in Europe and abroad in our international partnerships.