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Leaders must work together to tackle COVID-19 and prepare for future pandemics

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Photo: Joël Saget
Gro Harlem Brundtland calls for global leaders to work together to deliver vaccine equity and prepare for future pandemics.

This speech was delivered on 26 January 2022, as part of a panel discussion at the Prince Mahidol Award Conference 2022 on “Understanding the Megatrends of the 21st Century – A Critical Step Towards Getting the World We Want.”

Dear Dr. Carroll, fellow panellists and PMAC delegates,

It is a pleasure to join you today for this important discussion. Our topic reminds me of a quote attributed to the writer Mark Twain: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

This is particularly true in the field of geopolitics. No-one here today can say what the long-term consequences will be of the current tensions over Ukraine, or the continuing disputes between the United States and China.

But we do know that demographic and climate trends are having and will continue to have a profound impact on global security, health and development.

Certainly, the prediction of a so-called “unipolar world”, as suggested 30 years ago by Professor Francis Fukuyama in his book “The End of History”, proved inaccurate.

But some predictions do come true – including the one by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (of which I was co-Chair) in September 2019, warning that a lethal global pandemic could be imminent.

The problem is less that leaders have lacked sufficient information or analysis to prevent chaos. Too often, the problem has been a lack of political will to take tough decisions and act for the common good.

When international superpowers work together, they can create the conditions for a more hopeful future. Examples include the Paris climate agreement, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But we can also see what happens when international cooperation falls apart: consider the inability of the UN Security Council to act with urgency and unity in the face of protracted conflicts and crises from Afghanistan and Myanmar to Syria and Yemen.

COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated the profound inequality that scars our world and poses grave risks to future stability.

We have seen remarkable innovation over the past two years, particularly in the field of vaccine development. But the inequitable distribution of these life-saving vaccines is hampering a global recovery, which is both morally outrageous and economically myopic.

COVID-19 has also highlighted the critical need to confront the threat of disinformation via social media and how our knowledge base is in some cases being actively undermined for malign purposes.

This includes the spread of “anti-vax” conspiracy theories and the deliberate use of so-called “fake news” to undermine democratic processes and institutions.

These problems can only be addressed at a global level.

The Sustainable Development Goals offer a practical pathway to achieving a fairer world, including the commitment to Universal Health Coverage.

But we are dangerously short of time to achieve the SDGs by the deadline of 2030, and all of us have a responsibility to mobilise and hold our leaders accountable to their commitments.

This requires active citizen engagement and respect for the independence of civil society. Only by allowing all parts of our body politic to thrive will we arrive at the world we want.

Thank you.

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