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The global vectors of uncertainty that will influence the outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic: results of the regional experts’ discussions

In recent months the ISC has held a number of regional workshops exploring possible scenarios for how the COVID-19 pandemic will evolve in the coming years, and the factors and uncertainties that will affect its evolution.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unequal responses and impacts across the world, and how the pandemic will continue to unfold in the next few years is still very uncertain. With the United Nations Office for Disaster Reduction (UNDRR) and the World Health Organization (WHO) as observers, The International Science Council is conducting the COVID-19 Outcomes Scenarios Project to better capture the mid- to long-term consequences of the pandemic and map out what decisions or key factors will shape its evolution and outcomes.

The project has demonstrated the complex and wide-ranging impact of COVID-19 on all of society. Within the project, the various dimensions of the crisis are explored using the concept of “clocks”. Each “clock” represents critical dimensions that are being impacted at different speeds and timeframes. These are health, social, economy, national governance and global governance (the multilateral system and geopolitics). Two more clocks are emerging as the project progresses: environment, and science and technology. These are in the process of being discussed by the oversight committee.

As part of this exercise, the ISC recently convened a series of regional workshops with more than 70 experts in public health, governance, education, economics and many other disciplines to better understand the most critical global vectors of uncertainty and the key events that may sway the global outcome of the pandemic. The workshops were conducted to ensure that a variety of opinions from different regions were captured in this global exercise.

Along with vaccine access, other key vectors of uncertainty for the ‘’Health Clock’’ should be considered

‘’The impact on the health system and health workers alone has been extraordinary. The fact that there is complete exhaustion with many of those who manage the care of those who’ve been exposed to the virus, but also the huge anxiety that health workers and their families have experienced the whole way through, must be reflected.’’

Virginia Murray, Public Health England, United Kingdom

Unsurprisingly, experts cited global access to global public health goods as critical to achieving a fair and optimistic end to this pandemic. At the top of this list, of course, is access to COVID-19 vaccines, but also access to personal protective equipment, oxygen, anaesthetics and antibiotics, among other key items. Also critical are viral evolution, and health system capacity and resilience, among other factors.

Healthcare systems everywhere have been disrupted by the pandemic. Many countries in the Global South have also seen a loss of focus on health programmes, research, and development, which are currently not considered priorities (such as the fight against HIV and TB). This is likely to play out very negatively on the health of people in the longer run and thus must become a real concern for policymakers.

Education is a global key vector of uncertainty for long-term outcomes

‘”Access to online education is a major issue in Africa, as many parts of the continent don’t have reliable connectivity and infrastructure. As we move toward online education, we must ensure that the existing inequalities in terms of access are addressed. If we don’t, the future of many students and the health of people will be affected in time.”

Prof. Yahya Choonara, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa

Education has also been severely disrupted everywhere in the world and will impact different aspects of society, from employment to mental health, with longer-term consequences on social capital. In many low-income countries, where access to internet and technology is more often limited, the rapid move to online education as the sole alternative to in-person education is likely to increase pre-existing inequalities even further.

Considering education as a public good and placing it high on the global agenda is key to ensuring more optimistic outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with better access, decision-makers should prioritize quality education and recovery mechanisms in the short-term. Otherwise, much of the progress obtained in this area, especially in low-income countries, is likely to be for nothing.

Global governance for pandemic preparedness: Open Science and multisectoral collaboration for risk reduction

“One of the biggest gaps in this whole pandemic response has been a global leadership failure.”

Sir David Skegg, Epidemiologist and public health physician, New Zealand

Multilateral response is another key vector of uncertainty that many experts agreed upon. Although coordinated mechanisms for vaccine supply and distribution are critical, countries around the world also need to develop and strengthen their health security strategies to be able to monitor the evolution of the pandemic and promptly react during this health crisis and prepare for the next one.

If such rapid development of vaccines was somewhat unexpected, it demonstrated how crucial global information sharing and open data are for pandemic preparedness. Multisectoral cooperation is also needed to seize and respond to cascading risks. In many Small Island Development States in the Pacific and elsewhere in the world, climate change and environmental degradation are worsening the pandemic’s outcomes, as people are forced to leave their homes and health systems are destroyed by natural disasters. As we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, we can no longer simply disregard the interconnectedness between the health and the environmental crisis.

During the workshop, experts have highlighted many other vectors of uncertainty pertaining to the different ‘’clocks’’, from policies targeting all types of inequalities worldwide, to the type of economic recovery and fiscal policies that will be put in place in the short-term.  

How and when the COVID-19 pandemic will end depends on multiple factors and decisions. Identifying these key vectors of uncertainty will hopefully better prepare decision-makers with regards to the likely scenarios, and – most of all – on which critical decisions they can make today to allow for an optimistic and fair end to the pandemic.

More information about the ISC Regional COVID-19 Online Workshops is available here.

The workshop participants were: Achim Wambach; Afkar Nadhim Ali Al Farsi; Alan Bernstein; Alexander Likhotal; Ali Al-Kharusi; Amine Belmzoukia; Ana Tereza R. de Vasconcelos; Andrey N. Petrov; Angel Carro Castrillo; Anindita Bhadra; Anjana Singh; Anna Jura; Antonio Tintori; Arthur MacEwan; Augusta Maria Paci; Azhan Hasan; Bill Castell; Carlos Abeledo; Christiane Woopen; Clarissa Rios; Claudio Struchiner; Clementine Fu; Daniel Kleinberg; David Skegg; Deirdre Hennessy; Devi Sridhar; El Fahime Elmostafa; Elizabeth Jelin; Ethel Maciel; Gulnar Azevedo e Silva; Irene Torres; Jenny Reid; Jessica Dunienville; John G. Hildebrand; Jorge Kalil; Juan Godoy; Karina Batthyany; Kathie Bailey; Khamarrul Razak; Liang Xiaofeng; Lucia Reisch; Luiz Augusto Galvao; Lumkile Mondi; Mahomed Patel; Małgorzata Kossowska; Mami Mizutori; Marc Saner; Mardie Torres; Marianne Emler; Md. Mehadi Hasan Sohag; Nadeem Hasan; Nadya Guimaraes; NseAbasi Etim; Oladoyin Odubanjo; Ortwin Renn; Pablo Fdez-Arroyabe; Pedro Hallal; R. Alta Charo; Salim Abdool Karim; Sergio Sosa-Estani; Soledad Quiroz-Valenzuela; Stephany J. Griffith-Jones; Suher Carolina Yabroudi; Teatulohi Matainaho; Tushar Pradhan; Violeta Gloria; Virginia Murray; Walaa Saad Hanafy Mahmoud; Yahya Choonara; Yuanyuan Teng; Yuko Harayama.

Photo by Bruno Figueiredo on Unsplash.

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