/ 3 April 2024

Fatal misunderstanding: Why a pandemic agreement will return power to the people

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Covid-19 was a wake-up call for all of us — we must support, not undermine, the efforts by countries to provide a healthier, safer future for all the people of the world. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP

The opinion piece by Anjuli Webster published on 22 March by the Mail & Guardian, titled “Pandemic preparations are unhealthy”, is unfortunate as it conveys inaccurate and misleading claims concerning the important global efforts underway by countries of the African continent, and the world, to close the gaps exposed during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The one continent that bore the brunt of the Covid-19 impact, due to inequity and lack of shared global values, was Africa. Let’s not damage efforts to co-operate and unite in a fragmented world.

In the article, the author suggests little attention is being paid to the Pandemic Agreement. On the contrary, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa led an agenda item on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response at the African Union assembly of 2024. 

The assembly adopted a common African position on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response that clearly supported the accord negotiations and set out priority areas to ensure the accord was protective of African member states.

Governments are negotiating a new Pandemic Agreement — and strengthening the International Health Regulations — to make the world better able to prevent a repeat of the impacts inflicted on all of us by Covid-19. South Africa participates in its sovereign capacity, as a World Health Organisation (WHO) member state and a member of the African Union. 

What Webster asserts about “suppressed systems”, “centralising control”, “loss of health sovereignty” and “pouring funds” into pandemic preparedness, rather than other health concerns, does not reflect the truth.

Webster’s statement criticising the idea of investing in pandemic preparedness flies in the face of what countries on the continent are asking for in these vital global negotiations and naively equates making Africa better prepared for pandemics to hurting other areas of health action, such as malaria and TB. It is never one over the other. Investing in strong health systems will support all health needs.

Rather than suppressing systems, WHO (with its South African partners) has increased the local capacity for healthcare. The WHO-backed mRNA Hub in Cape Town was launched in direct response to this need. The draft Pandemic Agreement issues a call to “empower and enable community ownership of, and contribution to, community readiness for and resilience to pandemic prevention, preparedness and response”.

Rather than centralising power and seizing sovereignty, the draft agreement doubles down on the principle that countries will always retain control over health decision-making — the accusation to the contrary is absurd. 

If we read article 24(3) as it is written, it says: “Nothing in the WHO Pandemic Agreement shall be interpreted as providing the WHO secretariat, including the WHO director-general, any authority to direct, order, alter or otherwise prescribe the domestic laws or policies of any party…”

We need discussion on these issues, not disinformation, and we need meaningful contributions, not misinformation. Covid-19 was a wake-up call for all of us — we must support, not undermine, the efforts by countries to provide a healthier, safer future for all the people of the world. Let’s not damage the efforts to co-operate and unite in a fragmented world.

Petro Terblanche is the chief executive of Afrigen Biologics