There is no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact across the globe, causing sickness, death, economic downturn and invariable other forms of suffering as the virus has spread internationally.
At present in late-September, we approach the eye-watering total of 31.5 million cases, and the saddening total of 1 million deaths – and those are merely the figures of which we’re aware.
For all the successes and failings that we have seen since COVID-19 first emerged, it is critical that the global community, international organisations and individual states learn from the past 10 months to develop policies, processes, structures and institutions to manage future health emergencies as effectively and efficiently as possible.
This was not lost on the World Health Assembly when it met in May 2020, and passed a resolution calling for the WHO Director-General to:
…initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States, a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO–coordinated international health response to COVID-19…
Given that between May and September the pandemic has been accelerating in many ways, one might be forgiven for assuming that a review of actions taken, opportunities missed, and areas for improvement would still be a long way off. But in early July, the Director-General announced the establishment of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR).
Headed by two respected international figures, former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark and former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the IPPR is tasked with reviewing and evaluating the international response to COVID-19. Its mission is to provide a ‘comprehensive evidence-based assessment of the COVID-19 response as well as lessons for the future’. The Panel is fully impartial and independent.
That impartiality and independence will be crucial to the credibility of the IPPR and its report. The Director-General has, no doubt, sought to boost that credibility through his appointment of two well-respected and experienced international civil servants as Co-Chairs, and providing them with wide autonomy, including to appoint the other members of the Panel, and the dedicated secretariat who will support its operations.
This independence is also reinforced in the IPPR’s Terms of Reference, hopefully providing a strong foundation for the review. Given the criticism that the WHO has faced (notably from the USA which formally announced on 7 July that it will withdraw from WHO, effective 6 July 2021) for the its role in the international response to the pandemic, the IPPR and the report it is set to produce will be crucial.
The remaining IPPR members, announced on 3 September, represent a diversity of experience, perspective, nationality and expertise. They include a former Minister of Finance, former President of Médecins Sans Frontières, and a former President, and a distinguished medical professor.
The IPPR’s first meeting (17 September) began to formulate its key themes, methods of gathering evidence, and ways of undertaking its work. The Panel also undertook a mapping exercise of previous reviews into the functioning of the global health apparatus, and its response to previous pandemics and health emergencies. It intends to draw on previously gathered evidence where it can, and it will not be re-litigating the past or duplicating previous work.
In her opening remarks, Ms Sirleaf emphasised that the IPPR would “pursue an evidence-based quest to protect human health”, because “the world could have done better,” while Helen Clark emphasised that the Panel is not engaging in “a blame game”, but is instead “truth seeking, distilling lessons learned, and making recommendations…”
The Co-Chairs reiterated that their Panel would operate independently and impartially, no doubt seeking to reinforce IPPR’s credibility.
Now that the Panel’s work has begun, it will provide progress updates to the WHO’s governing bodies, including the Executive Committee, and will present its report to the World Health Assembly in March 2021. This relatively quick turnaround means the IPPR should hopefully avoid becoming mired in bureaucracy, and can produce a report while the impetus for improvement remains high.
The IPPR presents an opportunity for what will hopefully be meaningful critical analysis of WHO and the international community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Provided that the WHO, and member states themselves, contribute freely to the review and do not seek to impinge on the Panel’s independence and mandate, the IPPR may well present the best opportunity for finding international lessons for the future.
Whether the recommendations the Panel produces are ultimately acknowledged and given credence is another question. But if nothing else, the WHO should utilise the IPPR’s review as a chance to rebuild or enhance its credibility – depending, perhaps, on one’s perspective.
It is doubtful whether the IPPR’s report will be enough, in itself, to bring the US back into the fold. That more likely depends on the outcome of November’s presidential election. But regardless, the report should hopefully contribute to the discourse on how the international community responds to pandemics and other health emergencies in the future.
As Ms Sirleaf remarked, “COVID-19 is not the first pandemic, [and] it will not be the last…no one wants to repeat the experiences of COVID-19.”