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2023 must be a year of change in global financing to prepare for pandemic threats

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Photo: World Bank
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf gave a speech at a World Bank reception in April and called for commitments by world leaders to financing global pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

Read Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's speech

It’s my pleasure to be here today to take part in this distinguished event to talk about one of the biggest global challenges of our time.

It is more than nine years since my country was first rocked by the West Africa Ebola outbreak and I remember it like it was yesterday. It led to more than 11,000 deaths and billions in foregone economic output. I learned as President of Liberia at that time the importance of global solidarity at times of crisis.

In October 2014, I wrote a letter to the world pleading for assistance. A mass mobilisation of resources led by bilateral partners and the United Nations followed. With this support, the three West African Countries joined by regional bodies, notably Africa CDC, defeated Ebola.                                                  

This global response was the right thing to do from a moral perspective, and a rational course of action.

The many lessons from the Ebola experience were captured in several reports. This included the United Nations High-level Panel on the Global Response to Health Crisis led by Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, which released its findings in January of 2016. Many of the recommendations of that report, like others, were consigned to office bookshelves.

Three years later, COVID-19 swept the world. To date, it has led to some 20 million deaths, and cost the world trillions of dollars. The World Bank has warned that “COVID-19 will usher in the first reversal in the fight against extreme poverty in a generation.” Short-termism and self-interest by the richest nations led them to ignore the scientific warnings, thereby spreading the disease which exacerbated the impact of COVID-19 on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

The glaring reality is that with pandemics, nobody is safe until everybody is safe.  As Co-Chair with Helen Clark of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response, we drew on the learnings from Ebola and other outbreaks.  Our first report, published in May 2021, offered clear recommendations to transform the resilience and responsiveness of international systems and institutions to the threat of pandemics.

These included coordinated political leadership, national preparedness, new preparedness and surge financing, fit-for-purpose surveillance systems and clear rules governing early warnings and global alerts. It also required  a more independent and authoritative World Health Organization, and a pre-negotiated system that ensures people everywhere have access to tests, vaccines, and treatments.

I am here to talk to you about global financing for pandemics because I am afraid that we are currently re-living the chronic failure of political will by world leaders, to act upon the lessons from previous disease outbreaks to break the cycle of panic and neglect that has long been the hallmark of global efforts. Since SARS of 2003, a new health threat of global concern has arisen every five or six years. We need to be better prepared for the next pandemic threat, which is a matter of when, not if.

"I am talking about global financing for pandemics because I am afraid that we are currently re-living the chronic failure of political will by world leaders to act upon the lessons from previous disease outbreaks."

The Elders – the group of former world leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, of which I am a member – have launched a new pandemics advocacy programme which aims to secure strong global political leadership from heads of state and governments on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, to transform pandemic financing, and to see a clear commitment to put equity and human rights at the heart of the pandemic agenda.

These actions demand investment.  But when one considers the consequences of failure to act, in terms of health, wellbeing, prosperity and global security, these costs are small. The Independent Panel in its first report advised that financing global public goods, including early response capacity, should be thought of as critical infrastructure elements which cannot be allowed to fail. They require stable and reliable financing in the same way as other critical international systems such as finance and banking, or security and peacekeeping.

We therefore recommended the creation of an International Pandemic Financing Facility to raise additional reliable funding for pandemic preparedness and for rapid surge financing for response in the event of a pandemic. The facility should have the capacity to mobilise long-term contributions of up to US$ 10 billion annually to finance ongoing preparedness functions.

The creation of the Pandemic Fund goes some way towards responding to these recommendations. The target of an additional $10.5 billion estimated to be required annually for PPR, is arguably modest compared to the needs. It is noted that the first call for proposals has generated interest from low- and middle-income countries now totalling over $7 billion. This is far in excess of the unacceptable $1.6 billion committed to the Fund so far.

We thus look forward to seeing the results from this first financing round. But for the Fund to succeed in the medium to long term, pledges must be honoured. The gap between what is needed and what has been pledged so far must be filled, and soon.

We know that the Pandemic Fund, as it currently stands, is not the financing silver bullet that on its own will deliver a transformation of global PPR.      

The Independent Panel, for example, recommended that financing be generated based on a global public investment model - that each country contributes according to its needs, and withdraws according to its needs.

We recommended that financing must come primarily from outside of official development assistance and that surge financing of up to $100 billion could be front-loaded against pledged contributions when crisis strikes.

In addition, pandemic financing must be one of the priorities of the ongoing reform process of the international financial institutions. These Spring Meetings can lead to transformative opportunities for pandemic preparedness and response, together with climate change - which itself increases the risks of pandemics. 

And there are other sources of financing available, for example from the Global Fund, from regional banks and from private and cooperate capitol.

But the Elders believe the Pandemic Fund can and should be a critical component of global efforts to strengthen systems across the full pandemic pathway of prevention, preparedness and response, as the only global financing instrument dedicated to PPR.

It is important that investment in research and development in low-and-middle income countries, is part of the Pandemic Fund’s remit. When Ebola strikes again in Africa, we shouldn’t have to wait in vain for trial vaccines to arrive from Europe or America. 

And let us admit that more should be done about funding National Health Systems. National governments can and must do more. It was recently reported that 300 million dollars-worth of COVID-19 vaccines would be wasted because the systems could not deliver them.                          

Effective and timely response to improve national health systems can prevent such a loss, bearing in mind the need for enhanced institutional capacity.

Our message to you, that I hope will be taken back to your capitals, is that with which I opened. Global solidarity. It is of course incumbent on wealthier countries to lead by example in helping put the Pandemic Fund on a sustainable footing. But in financing a Global Public Good, it is incumbent on all of us to contribute to its success, as ultimately, we will all benefit. If it fails, then we will all pay the price.

Pandemics are an existential threat of our time. They can tear governments and societies apart.  So only whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches can protect us. 

There are a series of opportunities to transform global PPR during 2023.

The negotiations on a pandemic accord are ongoing in Geneva.  The UNGA High-Level Meeting on Pandemic prevention, preparedness and response in New York in September is an opportunity for all countries to agree to a cohesive package of reforms, with political leaders at the helm. 2023 must also be the year of a real change in global financing to be ready for and respond to pandemic threats. The world is counting on all of you to deliver this legacy.

In closing, I look forward to the remarks that will be made during the remainder of this event. I thank you.

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