COVID-19: Any Lessons Learned?


May 4, 2023

“We are not ready to face a new pandemic.” – Ricciardi (UNICATT)

“No country is safe until all countries are safe.” – Krech (WHO)

The 17th World Congress on Public Health, taking place in Rome from May 2nd to May 6th, coincides with a critical juncture for our world as we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused significant changes and exacerbated existing inequalities.

It is no coincidence that one of the key Plenary Sessions of the event is dedicated to a very pressing and painful subject: COVID-19: The Ongoing Challenge, Lessons Learnt, and How to Prevent the Next Pandemic.

The COVID-19 outbreak resulted in the loss of almost 7 million lives worldwide. This recent pandemic has also been a formidable stress test, examining the resilience of global health systems and exposing weaknesses in public procurement processes. However, managing COVID-19 has brought the healthcare sector, which is usually on the fringes of political debate and largely overlooked by the media, to center stage.

Why the situation went out of control?

“It’s beyond argument that not a single state in the world had adopted a perfect strategy during the pandemic. However, some of the states, like, for example, the UK, the USA, and Brazil have paid a very huge price in terms of losses and deaths because their governments, being directly dependent on public opinion, didn’t listen to the scientists, they didn’t lockdown immediately and they didn’t enforce vital public health measures”, – underlines Walter Ricciardi, Professor of Hygiene and Preventive Medicine at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and Scientific advisor to the Minister of Health for COVID-19 emergency from 2020 to September 2022. “It’s necessary to underline”- suggests Professor “that the responsibility still lies in the hands of the national governments. In some cases, the difference between the global response and the national was very divergent”. Ricciardi also emphasized that the so-called “infodemic (* false and misleading information about a disease outbreak) has led to mistrust in health authorities and has undermined the public health response”.

“The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t fall from heaven, it wasn’t the first wake-up call in this young century – we had the bird flu (H5N1), the swine flu (H1N1), Ebola, and in some regions, we had also Zika and then eventually we faced COVID. After each of these crises, external experts around the world looked at what the governments did right and what they did wrong, what the WHO did right or wrong and what is need to be done in the future. There were a series of recommendations already in 2015. However, countries didn’t address the root causes before in order to be better prepared for the epidemical pandemic. We needed a comprehensive understanding of the weaknesses in countries and resolute action to mitigate those weaknesses. Unfortunately, that has not happened”, stresses Dr Rüdiger Krech, a senior official at the World Health Organization (WHO).

What does COVID-19 teach us or should teach?

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic is in a state of transition, it is an ideal time to reflect on the valuable lessons we have learned.

“I’m not sure that the lessons were learned. I would say that certainly the lessons were taught”, Ricciardi says by highlighting two main lessons to focus on:

  • Targeted healthcare investments are essential to strengthen public health systems and prevent pandemics in the future;
  • A more determined and less selfish attitude toward investments in global collaboration and in human capital is needed.

What if the next pandemic happens tomorrow?

It is impossible to predict when the next pandemic will occur, but as experts suggest it is inevitable. Thus, it is extremely important to understand whether current national public health systems are ready to face another significant challenge.

“It’s not a question of whether or not we are going to see the epidemics or the pandemic but only when we are going to face it. The biggest mistake would be to ignore the weaknesses that we see in our own countries and that we monitor globally. As the pandemic went on, we learned a lot about how it evolves and every pandemic will evolve differently. Therefore, we will always learn with the development of the pandemic but the key benchmarks (for instance, the social distance) needs to be kept and the main 30 risks that can potentially lead to the next pandemic should be addressed“, underlines Dr Krech.

It depends on the country but the majority of them unfortunately are not ready. Some of them are too relaxed now and it seems like they haven’t made any conclusions from the previous pandemic experience. As we see, less money is invested in public health and in particular in public care”, – says Walter Ricciardi who, nevertheless, hopes that the next time the reaction would faster because “now we are certainly more experienced”.

Solutions on the table:

In March 2023, the World Health Organization began negotiations on a global accord for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response. The “zero draft” serves as a basis for the negotiations in order to create an accord that will protect nations and communities against future pandemic emergencies.

The global pandemic treaty should be the first step towards the global management of the future pandemic. We have been discussing this document for the last two years and I have to admit that we are still very slow because major countries are not in favor of this initiative. And the second and the third steps should certainly be the major investment in the public care system and the better coordination“, – Prof. Ricciardi concludes.

In Dr Krech’s opinion, in health promotion it is very important “to codesign, to empower and include in the policies and recommendations the people we want to reach” and to understand “how people behave and what they accept and do not accept”.

At the international level, collaboration should be considered an essential element.

“Virus do not know borders and we shall remember for the future: no country is safe until all countries are safe”, – concludes Dr Rüdiger Krech.