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Forecasting the next five years of the COVID-19 crisis – Expert Reaction

An international report predicts the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to be a society-wide crisis of growing inequalities that span far beyond the health sector.

The International Science Council report (to which Sir Peter Gluckman and Sir David Skegg contributed) says governments prolonged the pandemic by focusing on their own patch rather than working globally. Weighing up future scenarios through to the year 2027, they find the most likely picture is a worsening of global inequalities, including possible collapse of some health systems and setting back the UN’s sustainable development goals by a decade.

The report is available on Scimex to registered journalists. For assistance, contact the SMC.

The SMC asked experts to comment.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“This report warns that without global co-operation moving forward, the COVID-19 pandemic situation will likely continue until at least 2027. Within the report, three possible scenarios are outlined moving through to 2027 are based upon the advancement and development of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the extent and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines globally.

“It is predicted that the more likely of these scenarios to occur under the current circumstances is that COVID-19 becomes endemic globally, and that inequalities and inequities within and across society, the health, economic, development, science and technology settings worsen. Under this scenario, it is also predicted that health systems in low-income states will risk collapse, mental health and wellbeing issues will also deepen, with food security more at risk than ever.

“Among the recommendations, it is advised that the United Nations establish a new Science Advisory Board to help manage the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic, and support improved co-ordination for future global disasters and catastrophes.

“The Policy recommendations given within the report to mitigate the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and prepare for future crises include the following action areas: (1) Global equity – addressing growing inequalities and inequities, (2) Understanding risks – with a focus on risk assessment and integration into policy, (3) Building trust and public mobilization – focus on reliable information, (4) Prioritization of science, collaborations and science diplomacy, (5) Capacity development for science advice and resilience building, (6) Multilateral system reform – to enhance international cooperation and regional responsiveness before and during crises and (7) Investing in learning – including increased capacity for policy learning at national and international levels.

“In summary, the COVID-19 pandemic has and continues to cause disruption for all, and has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and inequities globally. While issues with unequal global COVID-19 vaccine coverage, availability, accessibility and distribution persist, and remain unaddressed, new variants will continue to emerge, develop and spread. Addressing current inequities in health and society, preparing for future crises and monitoring for new variants, will be critical moving forward and will be especially important for managing potential future outbreaks caused by any new variants. There is still much work to be done at this time.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“This report on the Covid-19 pandemic from the International Science Council (ISC) is both sobering and hopeful. Its strongest message is that a pandemic of the scale of Covid-19 creates severe, wide-ranging, and long-term global impacts and cannot be viewed in isolation. At the same time, the report also describes an optimistic scenario where there is increasing global action and collaboration to create better and more equitable outcomes.

“This report comes at a time of growing evidence that the pandemic is far from over. The Covid-19 virus is continuing to evolve rapidly to escape immune protection and increase rates of reinfection, resulting in further waves of infection across the globe. It is leaving a high burden of hospitalisations, deaths, chronic illness, and social and economic damage in its wake. The virus also has potential to become more virulent over time.

“The ISC report acknowledges the importance and the difficulty of improving pandemic management at the global multilateral level. Many of the important drivers of change are known, but not highly prioritised by most governments. This report’s release date is just over a year since the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, co-chaired by Rt Hon Helen Clark, released its report “COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic”. That report advocated for similar advances in pandemic preparedness along with strengthening the authority and financing of the World Health Organisation. As this new ISC report notes, “little progress has been made.”

“The New Zealand Covid-19 response stacks up well in many areas identified by the ISC report, including its use of science advice, efforts to strengthen public health capacity, support for effective responses in the Pacific Region, and global leadership on efforts to reduce the spread of disinformation via social media. But there are also many areas for improvement, including effort to address widening inequalities, and depoliticising decision-making around existential threats.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Sara Walton, Otago Business School, University of Otago; and Co-Director, He Kaupapa Hononga Otago’s Climate Change Research Network, comments:

“I commend the ISC for adopting a systemic futures based approach to explore future possibilities in a living-with-COVID world. The report focuses on some of the key issues we are seeing arising from living with the pandemic over the past 2 years. Furthermore, it highlights the increasing and pressing need for an approach moving forward for both health and climate that is collaborative (at global, national and local levels), based on science, systemic and just.

“If we do not learn from COVID-19 and move forward in these ways then the impacts from climate change will be felt even more severely than COVID-19 impacts across all aspects of society as we know it. Without changing our current trajectory it is predicted that as a global society we will be 10 years behind the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We do not have 10 years to wait for action on climate change without the impacts being catastrophic for our future generations.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Murat Ungor, Department of Economics, University of Otago, comments:

“This report says it “is the result of cooperation by the international science, policy and diplomatic communities in gathering and sharing ideas and knowledge across a broad range of domains.” And just like this report is prepared, the global economic policies should be coordinated.

“I agree with the report that there are “weaknesses in governance and cooperation with the multilateral system.” Global problems require global solutions. Beyond the COVID-19 economic shock, the global economy must focus on long term economic development. The ideas of global political-economic order since the end of the World War II should evolve into a more share-based system in which no so-called superpower will dictate upon how we use our limited resources.
COVID-19 has shown us that the idea of globalisation needs certain changes. Geopolitical cooperation should replace replace geopolitical rivalry. Inclusive prosperity should be at the heart of the new multilateralism for future economic resilience against the ever-increasing economic uncertainty. Major international institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF, should be redesigned to produce better globalisation in which regional and global policy coordination will become a reality.”

No conflict of interest.