When the resolution was passed by World Health Organization (WHO) member states at the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May requesting an evaluation ‘at the earliest appropriate moment’ of lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19, it was generally thought the appropriate moment would be when the pandemic was on the wane.
Yet the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has actually been established at a time when - as noted by WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his announcement of the panel - the pandemic is still accelerating.
In most of the world the virus is not under control, and cases have actually doubled in the last six weeks. So why now?
Emphasis on global solidarity
Throughout the pandemic so far, Dr Tedros has emphasised two main points – the need for urgent action by countries, and the imperative need for global solidarity. In announcing the panel, he said this is the ‘defining crisis of our age’ and that ‘we cannot defeat this pandemic as a divided world … the COVID-19 pandemic is a test of global solidarity and global leadership’.
He may well see establishing the panel now - when the pandemic still has a long way to run - as an opportunity to reinforce messages which have hitherto seemed to fall on deaf ears, notably saying ‘we are in the midst of the battle of our lives, and we have to do better’. And he has also said that we should learn lessons now that will be useful in the continuing fight against the pandemic.
Establishing both the membership of the panel and its terms of reference has been left largely in the hands of the co-chairs – distinguished ex-politicians Helen Clark of New Zealand and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia. But they will have to construct the panel in close consultation with member states on the basis of their proposals for membership – a process that will likely be fraught by the divisive politics which have already so upset Dr Tedros.
In addition, embedded in the mandate from the WHA resolution is the phrase ‘WHO-coordinated international health response’ – negotiated language which is intentionally ambiguous and reveals an unresolved tension.
Does it mean the panel should principally focus on WHO’s performance, which is what several countries – including the US – want to see? Or should it give at least equal weight to the way countries have responded individually and collectively, as Dr Tedros and the WHO may want to see?
These different interpretations mean both the construction of the panel and its terms of reference could be highly contentious. Most countries, including China and the US but also others, will not want their responses to be subjected to independent investigation. Nor will they want to include panel members likely to be critical of their responses. This suggests the possibility that there will be political pressure to focus the enquiry principally on the performance of WHO rather than that of countries – an outcome Dr Tedros would not welcome.
It remains to be seen how the co-chairs will manage these highly political issues, and avoid the panel becoming an extension of ‘pandemic politics’ by other means. Can it come to definitive conclusions in the midst of a pandemic and, if so, how likely are they to be heeded?
It is also highly likely that several other reviews will be launched, wholly independently of oversight by WHO and its member states, as happened following the 2014 Ebola outbreak. This provides opportunities for a variety of perspectives on both the performance of WHO, and of individual countries.
Already, The Lancet has announced its own Commission on COVID-19 with a broad mandate covering both the health and economic responses to the pandemic. Both this and the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response are likely to be only the first of many COVID-19 reviews.