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Sensemaker: Total global failure

Thursday 13 May 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Boris Johnson promised a public inquiry next spring into his government’s handling of Covid.
  • The Foreign Office said Radovan Karadzic, a former Bosnian Serb leader serving a life sentence for genocide in a UN detention centre, will be moved to a British prison.
  • After facing allegations of bullying at her long-running talk show, Ellen DeGeneres said the show is “just not a challenge any more” and will end next year.

Total global failure

Weak links at every point in the chain of response. An “underpowered” World Health Organisation. And zero global political leadership. In short there was a total global failure to protect people from the preventable disaster of Covid. These are the headline conclusions of a report published yesterday by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response based on hundreds of expert interviews, thousands of documents, and counsel from public and private institutions around the world. It was commissioned by the WHO, takes a qualified swing at the WHO (see below) and recommends reforms to prevent future pandemics. These include:

  • Another global treaty. This one would allow countries to share virus samples, deploy WHO rapid response teams, and ensure an equitable distribution of vaccines. A council would establish consequences if countries didn’t meet their commitments.
  • More power for the WHO so that it can investigate and publish information about disease outbreaks without individual governments’ approval.
  • More money, between $5 and $10 billion a year, for a new International Pandemic Financing Facility.
  • A change in thinking. The panel recommended a “precautionary approach” from the outset, so that a respiratory disease is assumed to spread from person to person unless and until established otherwise.

These are all good and necessary reforms, but there’s a strange omission in the reports. The panel didn’t examine the origins of Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid. A panel member said that fingering individual countries – like China, where doctors first detected the virus but were suppressed by authorities – wouldn’t be “a very useful approach”. This may be true but it skirts round a central criticism of the WHO last year, namely that China muzzled it.

Still, the report does level strong and valid criticism at wealthy European and North American countries for “wasting February 2020” through inaction, leading to “a lost month when many more countries could have taken steps to contain the spread of Sars-Cov-2 and forestall the global health, social and economic catastrophe that continues its grip”.

Of all its proposed reforms, giving the WHO new powers to investigate and publish information about disease outbreaks without individual governments’ approval may be the most significant. There’d have been no February 2020 to waste if the virus were contained at source.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

PPE money
The Conservative party’s former chair, Lord Feldman, used an advisory role in the UK’s health ministry at the start of the Covid pandemic to initiate a government contract for a client of his lobbying company, Tulchan, the FT reports. Feldman’s advisory role was unpaid, but the contract paid his client, Bunzl, handsomely: £22.6 million for personal protective equipment. Bunzl (which is an established PPE supplier) won a further three contracts to supply the government with PPE without a competitive tender process. In emails seen by the FT, Feldman tells Bunzl’s chief executive that the company was “removed from the approved suppliers list” and that he “would like to remedy that as soon as possible”. A week later, Feldman emailed a Cabinet Office official: “We need to move quickly.” The Cabinet Office confirmed the order three days later. Feldman, who chaired the Conservatives while David Cameron was prime minister, has at least proved to be a more effective lobbyist. Cameron is the subject of a number of inquiries and will be questioned by a parliamentary committee today over his lobbying for Greensill, a failed bank.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Trump lives
Republicans removed Liz Cheney, a Wyoming congresswoman and daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney, as their leader in the US House of Representatives. The vote came amid Cheney’s continued criticism of former president Donald Trump, whom she called an unprecedented threat to America with his false claims that last year’s election was stolen. Trump called her a “warmonger” and “a bitter, horrible human being”. After she was ousted, Cheney told reporters she will do “everything” to ensure Trump “never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office”. A Trump-loyalist, Elise Stefanik, is set to replace her.


New things technology, science, engineering

Cheat sites
Websites that help pupils and students cheat on their classwork have gained millions of new users during the pandemic. Some allow students to submit questions that their teachers set them for expert answers. A newer kind of website, like homeworkforyou.com, allows students to put up their classwork for auction with a requested grade and proposed price. A year of remote learning, when supervision was weak and these online services were easily accessible, is what enabled this boom in cheating. But teachers fear it won’t stop after the pandemic ends. “Students have found a way to cheat and they know it works,” Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow at Imperial College in London, who has studied academic integrity issues for more than two decades, told the Wall Street Journal. Question: aren’t we all cheating, all the time, wandering around with networked computers in our pockets?


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Missing cancers
Covid admissions to English hospitals “inevitably had a knock-on effect” on the treatment of other illnesses, NHS England chief operating officer Amanda Pritchard tells the BBC. Waiting lists have ballooned. At a quarter of trusts, more than one in 10 patients was left without treatment for at least a year. Some hospitals are struggling to treat cancer patients within the target time of two months. But not all the delays are caused by disruption to services. About a quarter of patients waiting the longest for treatment have postponed treatment themselves because of a reluctance to come forward during the pandemic and problems accessing screening services. As a result, Macmillan Cancer Support estimated that across the UK there are 45,000 “missing” cancer patients. The charity fears this will lead to more later-stage diagnoses, which cut the chances of survival.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Artificial volcanoes
The theory has been around for years: control global warming by releasing millions of tons of tiny reflective particles in the upper atmosphere so less of the UV radiation that gets the warming process going ever reaches Earth. This already happens after big volcanic eruptions, and it’s the theory behind the idea of a nuclear winter. Should we study it more closely? Nature, in an editorial, says we should. It supports a proposal from the US National Academy of Sciences to spend up to $200 million over five years researching the tech, the moral context and the likely public reaction – which we know will not be mild. In March Sweden had to ground a solar geoengineering research balloon because of worries about moral hazard in Arctic Sami communities. It’s true there is a risk we won’t try hard enough to cut emissions if there seem to be alternatives. It’s true that messing with the atmosphere is dangerous. We know because we’re already doing it.

Please share this around – and let us know what you think of it.

Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagalizia

Photographs by Getty Images


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