The World Needs Better Global Health Governance

With the global count of COVID-19 cases exceeding 500, 000, countries are bearing huge losses in human lives and economic growth. The COVID-19 outbreak was seen in China earlier than Europe and America. Considering this time gap, other countries should have warned of the dire situation the novel virus can cause. However, many seemed unprepared when the virus started throwing their societies in disorder. The U.S. for example, ranking high in the 2019 Global Health Security Index, has reported more infected cases than any other country.

The world has successfully forestalled many outbreaks of infectious diseases so much as to make many believe humans are invincible. So why have we failed to stop this global pandemic in its early stage?

Chen Wen, a Fudan public health professor provided his take. He said it takes time for us to know more about this novel coronavirus and the high percentage of infected patients showing no symptoms has made the pandemic intrinsically difficult to control. The outbreak in China provided only indirect information to other countries and it was difficult for unaffected countries to make good judgments based on this information. Developed countries with advanced medical and health systems have also misjudged COVID-19.

For decades, the world has been dedicated to building a global health governance architecture, which has apparently failed to protect us this time. The problem thus goes back to the crux of the matter: what actually defines good global health governance?

Three aspects, Chen believes, are necessary to good global health governance: first, all-party participation. The participants should not only include governments and public institutions, but also the private sector and non-governmental organizations. Second, consensus on the urgency and severity of public health issues and what measures to be adopted. Third, coordinated action. There are great differences in the attitude and measures taken by countries amid the outbreak. Weaknesses in global health governance have already been revealed in previous pandemics such as H1N1 and Ebola. But so far there are still no consistent principles or strategies for disease prevention and control at the international level.

To improve the present global health governance, Chen suggested we need more international organizations to coordinate efforts in different areas. The World Health Organization, though its role has been weakened somehow in recent years, still provides strong leadership and technological support during global health emergencies. The world can also benefit from the expertise of other UN organizations, major foundations or non-governmental organizations for frontier research and targeted research on certain diseases. Countries should be aware that despite continuous improvement in their health and medical systems, they are still vulnerable to novel viruses, and thus sustained efforts in resource investment, talent training and capacity building need to be stepped up. Better mechanisms to store and distribute resources and to release and share information are also required.

Public-private partnership is important to global health governance, said Chen. Chinese enterprises have been sending aids abroad since the regional outbreak escalated into a global pandemic. Such efforts are effective in the short run. In the long run, however, technological support, information sharing, talent training and capacity building for affected countries are more important than directly offering them funds and supplies. Apart from fulfilling social responsibilities, it is also strategically significant for enterprises to participate in global operations concerning public welfare as they will be creating for themselves a more favorable business environment in international markets.

Coordination of the broader society is indispensable to the implementation of public health care, said Chen. For example, preventive measures including home-based isolation, neighborhood disinfection and temperature taking are all done by grass-root staff. The state public health system simply cannot do it alone.

Amid the current outbreak, many scholars argue that China needs to allocate more funds to public health. However, Chen emphasized that the focus should instead be on how we can translate cash and materials into capability enhancement and on what public health system China really needs. He pointed out that at the moment, China’s public health system and medical service system are running on parallel paths and the country must find a way to join these two systems together to preempt future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

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