Twenty-five world leaders announced their intention for a pandemic treaty, a legally binding mechanism to protect against future pandemics and their impact on economies and societies, using the language of global collaboration, cooperation and solidarity for mitigating future pandemics.
However, why did governments not abide by international law and the norms for pandemic management that were already in place?
It is a question Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, is asking.
The International Health Regulations (IHR) provide the legal architecture outlining what governments must do to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks of infectious disease: this includes sharing information about emerging pathogens with the WHO; implementing public health interventions to prevent disease transmission; and in the longer term developing capacity within health systems to be able to identify and respond to emerging disease threats.
Alongside the Global Health Security Agenda, the G7 and multiple regional efforts such as the Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance Network, governments had already increasingly recognised the mutual vulnerability to global disease risk, and the necessity of collaboration within transparent systems to prevent and respond to health emergencies.
Yet governments chose to abandon the norms established within pandemic preparedness, deciding to go it alone during Covid-19.
They actively departed from WHO guidance on how best to respond to the virus, despite previously recognising the WHO as the global disease coordinator;
Then failed to support other states in their response to Covid-19;
And have contravened the IHR by implementing travel restrictions in the absence of such recommendations from the WHO;
Moreover, many states continue to sidestep norms of global solidarity with their competitive commitment to vaccine nationalism over efforts for equity in the distribution of vaccines.
One of the key lessons learned from Covid-19 has been that politics drives epidemics. International law are only as effective as the political will to manage an outbreak and the success of any technical disease control intervention.
The IHR as a technical and legal tool, outlining government’s responsibilities to prevent, detect and respond to an emerging pathogen, failed without any incentive or enforcement mechanism to do so. Beyond public shaming, there are few ramifications for governments flouting the law.
If the proposed pandemic treaty was able to hold governments to account, what would this pandemic treaty look like? Economic or political sanctions for failure to comply with the IHR? Financial compensation for effective outbreak response?
A formal treaty would require the involvement of more powerful institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization or United Nations Security Council.
It would mean governments surrendering a significant portion of their sovereignty when it comes to disease control – so to give decision-making to the WHO not just to share pathogenic information but to recommend or even implement public health measures, regardless if these come at significant cost to a particular nation’s trade and travel, permitting bodies of the international community to enforce compliance.
Clare Wenham finds it hard to believe governments agreeing to such a treaty that gives them less control at time of crisis, the inability to make sovereign decisions as to policy tools implemented, and for which noncompliance could risk economic or political side-effects.
One potential model for the treaty is the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control , aimed to reduce tobacco consumption and trade, but several countries, including the US, failed to ratify the treaty because of competing industry demands domestically. As for the proposed pandemic treaty, both the US and China are already notable by their absence for it.
While much political fanfare was made of the commitment to a pandemic treaty, little of it is likely to survive the negotiating process, is Clare Wenham's informed conclusion.
A view fully shared by ourselves in the World Socialist Movement