In September 2023 there was much discussion in the global health community around the new Political Declaration of the UN General Assembly on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response. How should we view this achievement? What does this mean for companies? And how should business leaders in particular view this latest declaration?
The COVID-19 pandemic brought tremendous uncertainty to the corporate world. The scale of the pandemic and the incongruence of policies led to an often-confused landscape, even in countries where public health services have traditionally responded quickly and efficiently. Guidelines applicable to business took many months to be produced. Companies found themselves seeking outside validation of how to respond, taking their own decisions around protecting employee health.
Increasingly, corporates talk about pandemic resiliency, the ability to withstand future pandemic shocks. However, in many companies, pandemic fatigue reigns, and planning for infectious disease within corporate functions still remains a low priority. It is no coincidence that infectious disease hazards were listed prominently in the WEF’s top five risks during recent pandemic years, yet featured far less in the five preceding years. We should ensure that business leaders do not lose this opportunity to prepare better for future pandemic risk, breaking the cycle of panic and neglect.
How does this declaration differ?
The declaration covers a wide range of topics, such as:
- The recognition of the COVID-19 pandemic as a global health, humanitarian and socio-economic crisis that requires a global response based on unity, solidarity and multilateralism.
- The reaffirmation of the central role of the World Health Organization (WHO) as the directing and coordinating authority on international health, and the need to provide it with adequate and predictable funding and support its reform process.
- The call for the promotion of equitable access to affordable, safe, effective and quality COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics for all, as well as the strengthening of health systems and capacities, especially in developing countries.
- The endorsement of the establishment of a Global Health Threats Council, a Pandemic Treaty, a Pandemic Fund and a Global Health Data Platform, as well as the review and improvement of the International Health Regulations.
- The commitment to address the root causes and drivers of pandemics, such as environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, climate change, deforestation, wildlife trade and antimicrobial resistance.
- The pledge to enhance resilience and preparedness for future pandemics by investing in research and innovation, strengthening surveillance and early warning systems, developing national action plans and ensuring adequate stockpiles of essential supplies.
So what does it mean for companies?
For many companies, this renewed call for collaboration will remain only remotely relevant to them. Many have moved on to the next business continuity threat. There remain, however, several great opportunities for collaboration and partnership which the declaration alerts us to, for example:
- Aligning your ESG strategy with the goals and principles of the declaration, such as supporting the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and other medical products, promoting environmental sustainability and human rights, and contributing to the Pandemic Fund or other relevant initiatives.
- Engaging with relevant health stakeholders to share your best practices and lessons learned from managing the health and safety of your employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to learn from others’ experiences and recommendations. This could also include benchmarking your response against other companies, testing out your resilience, or performing a gap analysis.
- Leveraging private sector expertise, resources and networks to support the research and innovation efforts for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, collaborating with academic institutions, research organisations or start-ups that are working on novel technologies or approaches.
- This is not limited to health companies. Corporates can assist in helping address medical misinformation for employees. A number of corporations have stepped up to the mark in enabling pandemic response in communities where access to healthcare or supply chains can be problematic. Or, as society urbanises yet further, firms can consider the actions they take to promote urban health security.
- Now is a good time to start analysing how your resilience and preparedness for future pandemics is tracking. This might include developing or reviewing relevant guidelines and standards issued by competent authorities, conducting regular risk assessments, developing contingency plans, training staff and ensuring adequate supplies. International SOS has partnered with Munich Re to enable this work to occur as part of a specially developed, industry-first pandemic risk policy.
- Predictive modelling remains a tough endeavour and fraught with modelling bias. Digital platforms are increasingly being utilised to access reliable and timely data on pandemic risks and impacts. Whilst the unpredictable nature of both human behaviour and political movements mean that at best predictions are only weeks in advance, valuable insights can be obtained when this data is coupled with public health know-how and on-the-ground intelligence, especially in locations where data can be scarce, to assist business operations and promote better decision-making.
Declarations and resolutions by international bodies can indeed provide a framework for global cooperation and mobilisation of resources, reflecting high-level political will and commitment to address the current and future challenges posed by pandemics. Somewhat problematically however, the declaration acknowledges that it is not legally binding or enforceable, but rather a voluntary expression of collective intention. However, we know through experience that their effectiveness can be limited, depending on the willingness of individual countries to implement and adhere to the recommendations. The Political Declaration of the UN General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases is a case in point.
Clearly, more is needed to translate this opportunity into concrete actions and outcomes. It is important that the declaration is complemented by other measures and mechanisms that can address the gaps and weaknesses in the existing global health architecture, such as ensuring adequate funding, enhancing transparency and trust, fostering inclusive participation and consultation, and addressing the social determinants of health. Businesses can and do have an increasing role to play in this dynamic.
For more information on how International SOS supports organisations in Pandemic Preparedness click here.