Two years ago the director general of the World Health Organisation silenced the audience at the World Government Summit with the view that a devastating epidemic could start in any country at any time — and that the world would not be prepared.
Today, with the globe in the grip of coronavirus, those comments seem even more prescient.
The current outbreak is nowhere near the scale of the situation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described to leaders at the Dubai summit, in which as many as 100 million people could die. But it has brought one question into sharp focus: just how prepared are we for a pandemic?
Not enough, according to the Global Health Security Index, a report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Economist Intelligence Unit released in October 2019.
The 195-country study finds national health security to be “fundamentally weak” around the world. No nation is fully prepared to handle an epidemic or pandemic, it says.
Which countries are best prepared?
The report uses public information to assess each country’s ability to prevent, detect and respond to health emergencies. The index measures countries’ capabilities from 0-100, with 100 representing the highest level of preparedness.
On this scale, the US is the “most prepared” nation (scoring 83.5), with the UK (77.9), the Netherlands (75.6), Australia (75.5) and Canada (75.3) behind it. Thailand and South Korea are the only countries outside of the West that rank in this category.
Much of Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Asia and Central and South America are described as “more prepared,” with scores between 66 and 34.3, while the majority of countries ranked “least prepared” are in Africa. North Korea (17.5), Somalia (16.6) and Equatorial Guinea (16.2) are listed in the index’s bottom three.
China — which is at the centre of the recent coronavirus outbreak — is in 51st place, scoring 48.2.
What needs to be done?
Collectively, international preparedness is “very weak.” The index’s average overall score is 40.2, which rises to 51.9 for high-income countries — a situation the report describes as alarming.
So what can be done? The report emphasizes that health security is a collective responsibility.
It recommends governments commit to action to address health security risks, that every country’s health security capacity should be measured regularly and transparently, and that the international community works together to tackle biological threats, with a focus on financing and emergency response.
This kind of action will become even more necessary. The number and diversity of epidemic events has increased over the past 30 years, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Health Security: Epidemics Readiness Accelerator.
The trend is expected to intensify. As globalisation brings increasing trade, travel and population density, and as problems such as deforestation and climate change grow, we enter a new era in the risk of epidemic events, it says.
Stronger, unified responses to these threats — such as that displayed by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations when it moved to rapidly form partnerships to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus — will be of vital importance.
This article is curated from the World Economic Forum website.