The Problem of Pandemic Exit

If irresponsible (exit) decisions about the coronavirus and the COVID-19 pandemic are now acceptable elsewhere, we don’t have to go the same way, writes OSCAR MOTSUMI

Before we can talk about how best countries can relax, or abandon, COVID-19 protective measures and other mitigation protocols, legal or voluntary, embraced by a menaced world two years ago this month, let us remember that this response, though facing some illiterate opposition in some quarters, was swift, coordinated, and a major synchronised whole-of-world approach to disease control and containment; the best of it’s kind since the influenza health crisis of the 1920s.
There is no denying the success of this global approach. It saved lives, millions of lives – the masks, the social distancing, the hygienic measures and the socio-economic restrictions, the vaccines. In some countries very authoritarian legal measures, desirable or not, were, in their entire combination, very effective in controlling the virus spreading, disease infections, hospitalisations and saving the lives of billions, including the more than 140 million who got infected and surviving.
Now that we are getting out of the worst possible impacts of this pandemic, isn’t it necessary that we gather, study and overview lessons learned from this coordinated global response and tie this success to pandemic exit strategies that already seem to be working in some countries?
We must agree that we live in a world that is forever rapidly evolving and highly interconnected and frenetically mobile, and that all this hectic mobility and inter-relatedness makes risk governance a major challenge for all governments, especially emergency health administration. Just as pandemic control could not be achieved by nation-oriented approaches in the past two years, COVID-19 pandemic exit cannot now be accomplished through narrow-minded, inward-looking policies.
To achieve pandemic exit success – a tall order by any measure, given the problem of mutant variants and the frequently waning effectiveness of the vaccines currently in the market, not to mention that billions of people remain unvaccinated – we ought to devise and implement global strategies for maximum collaboration and commit to shared progress in defeating the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic in the long-term.
Isolated, short-termism is not the best approach. We just cannot have each and every country doing its own thing, getting things wrong, coming back to the international fold again for help, and going back to local social experiments of its own, failing, and trying again. That just won’t work. We survived this pandemic by largely working together; designing conceptual frameworks, tools, and entities responsible for public safety and disease control for every individual, every community, and government and all global health systems, as best we could, synergistically cutting down everyone’s risk and maximising disease control, progress and scientific impact.
We did this as a global community, galvanising clear global leadership and solidarity, drawing useful and effective lessons from previous health pandemics from all parts of the world, implementing well-tested pandemic mitigation tools developed in response to plagues like Ebola and influenza outbreaks.
The roles apportioned to individuals, to communities and governments these past tremulous two years; these things do not come from COVID-19 pandemic mitigation only, they come from the wisdoms of our forebears the world over, their provenance is in the historic past of health emergency administration and management.
Why is it acceptable now for other countries to start running ahead, leaving others behind, not helping with vaccines and institutional support, and creating unnecessary risks for everyone? Is the world ready to abandon masks now? I don’t think so. Is the world safe from further COVID-19 infections? Obviously not, and people are still dying in large numbers even in those regions with high rates of vaccination.
Is it wise to relax international travel measures right now? Yes, but caution must be the guiding rule, and frankly this should not be left to individual governments. WHO should put in place science-informed rules for international travel? Why not? They have better data about the global reach and impact of this pandemic than any single government, and frankly most governments have no reliable data at all. Besides, if for one reason or the other this pandemic suddenly becomes as deadly as it was 12 months ago, it is WHO that is going to take the flake.
It is also worth noting that we actually are still studying this virus – its mutants and whatever it can do to come through to us again in the future, should a cure not be found soon. Also, the regions most unvaccinated are the most fragile, the most exposed and the least capable of self-defence. And because they are needy, they are likely to be the ones most likely to take the worst possible risks towards pandemic exit.
Namibia, for example, just announced that masks are no longer a requirement in public places. We expect many more African countries to follow the same route in the near future, and damn the consequences! As civil society, we are very worried about these developments. An uncontrolled pandemic requires resources and focused political leadership, not irresponsible adventurism.
It requires education, knowledge and a strong health and financial infrastructure. Africa, and Africans, do not have these things. If irresponsible decisions about the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic are now acceptable elsewhere, we don’t have to go the same way We encourage our leaders to do the right thing; follow the science and safe lives.