Former prime minister Helen Clark says the global handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is marred with failures, gaps and delays.

Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark in Turkey

Former prime minister Helen Clark says nations need to spend less time debating ‘commas in committees while a pandemic rages’.
Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

Clark is a co-chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response and is urging nations to spend less time debating commas in committees and instead get on with implementing the panel’s proposed reforms.

These include new financing of at least $10 billion a year for pandemic preparedness, and negotiations on a global pandemic treaty.

Clark told Morning Report the wheels were in motion on the structural responses the panel had called for but progress was slow.

“The wheels grind slowly but they are grinding,” she said, noting that the World Health Assembly (WHA) would meet for a special session next week and the sole item on the agenda was discussing whether to begin negotiating a treaty aimed at preventing future pandemics.

“I’m quite optimistic that they (the WHA) will embark on negotiations – now what they negotiate is another matter, but the process is kind of under way.”

If the WHA decided to move forward with treaty negotiations it would be only the second global public health treaty, after a 2003 accord to control tobacco use.

Speaking in London overnight, at the launch of a six-month accountability review into the report commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) and published by the panel, Clark criticised the unequal response globally to the current pandemic’s more immediate challenges.

“There hasn’t been an equitable supply of tools to fight the pandemic, despite the sincere efforts of many people,” she said.

“We’ve talked a lot about vaccines, but many countries have lacked adequate access to other basics such as diagnostics, therapeutics, personal protective equipment, and even oxygen.”

She told Morning Report the panel had recommended reforms that addressed those inequalities, including dedicated financing for pandemic preparedness and a redesigned “end-to-end” platform that could control the flow of essential medical goods in the event of a future pandemic.

“That’s quite a big ask and in many ways this will be the hardest of all the asks that we had because it does require confronting the current way that the WTO (World Trade Organization) deals with intellectual property,” Clark said.

The issue of intellectual property rights was already a hot topic, she said, adding that India and South Africa were leading the change in pushing for “the waiver of intellectual property rights in the event of pandemics, including this one”.

More than 257 million people have been reported to be infected by the SARS-CoV2 coronavirus and 5.4 million have died since the first cases were identified in central China in December 2019, according to a Reuters tally.

Clark said a key part of “how to do better next time” would hinge on reforms required at the WHO itself and admitted the slow progress on deciding what those reforms should be was “frustrating”.

The next regular meeting of the WHO was in late May next year and that would focus on the reform programme, she said.

“While it’s slow and it’s frustrating and we’re coming up, at the end of next month, to the two-year anniversary since what was then a novel coronavirus – which isn’t now so novel – was first identified, the wheels are in motion on these structural responses.”

‘We’re by no means through this’

Clark told Morning Report the newest wave of Covid-19 infections in Europe was “largely avoidable” and should serve as a warning to New Zealand not to let its guard down.

“What we’ve seen in … developed countries that are capable of administering a vaccine rollout [is] they then tend to throw out all the other measures,” she said.

She was scathing of images she had seen showing almost no one on the London underground wearing masks: “Can we be surprised that there’s tens of thousands of cases a day?”

She said both the WHO and the panel’s report advocated the ongoing use of public health measures in addition to vaccination.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t be satisfied …

“In New Zealand, when you get to even 90 percent of vaccination of eligible people, don’t throw away the rest of the toolkit because you need it to control transmission among those who aren’t vaccinated,” Clark said.

“It’s a complex story but we’re by no means through this.”

– additional reporting by Reuters

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