The chances of a global pandemic are growing — and we are all dangerously under prepared, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In a report published on Wednesday by a panel of international health experts and officials, they pointed to the 1918 influenza pandemic as an example of a global catastrophe. That killed as many as 50 million people — if a similar contagion happened today, it could kill up to 80 million people and wipe out 5% of the global economy.
“The world is not prepared,” the WHO report warned. “For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: we ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides. It is well past time to act.”
Between 2011 and 2018, WHO tracked 1,483 epidemics worldwide, including Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the report said.
These epidemics and pandemics devastated many of their host countries — the West Africa Ebola outbreak resulted in a loss of $53 billion in economic and social cost. These huge economic costs translate to severe real-life consequences — lost jobs, forced displacement, inaccessible healthcare, and greater mortality.
While disease, epidemics, and pandemics have always existed, greater population density and the ability to travel anywhere in the world within 36 hours means disease can spread rapidly through a country and then go worldwide.
Climate change is also having an effect. Global warming means mosquito-borne diseases like Zika and dengue could spread to Europe, the United States, and Canada — placing a billion more people at risk, a study found earlier this year.
Poorer countries, especially those without basic primary health care or health infrastructure, are hit the hardest by disease outbreaks. In these places, the problem is often compounded by armed conflict or a deep distrust in health services, as seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has been ravaged by an Ebola outbreak for more than a year. Community mistrust has led to violent, sometimes fatal attacks on heath care workers.
Scientific and technological advancements have helped fight these diseases — but the WHO report warns they can also provide the laboratory environments for new disease-causing microorganisms to be created, increasing the risk of a future global pandemic.
“All parts of society and the international community have made progress in preparing to face health emergencies, but current efforts remain grossly insufficient,” the report said.
It highlighted several persistent problems, including a “lack of continued political will” — meaning national leaders aren’t devoting enough energy and resources to disaster preparation.
Although there are existing guidelines under the International Health Regulations, many poorer countries can’t afford to comply with the requirements, and they aren’t getting support from the international community — even though the wealthier G7 countries had previously pledged their support.
The WHO called for world leaders to take seven concrete actions to lessen the risk, including monitoring progress during international summits, creating multi-year disaster plans, strengthening United Nations coordination, and building preparation systems across all sectors.