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WHO Report Calls Pandemic 'Preventable Disaster,' Calls Out Lack Of Global Leadership


The World Health Organization says that the COVID-19 pandemic that's killed so many people around the world and continues to do such harm is a, quote, "preventable disaster" and adds, global political leadership was absent. That's the judgment of an independent WHO panel in which David Miliband served. Of course, he's the former foreign minister of Great Britain and currently president of the International Rescue Committee. And he joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You, of course, have served in government. And you know that democratically elected officials - and for that matter, I suspect even dictators - are not eager to tell their citizens, stay home, lock down. This is going to hurt, but we have to do it.

MILIBAND: That's true. But at each stage of the last year and a half, different governments have done well. Some of them have been democratic. Some of them have been dictatorial. But they have shown the way forward. Often, it's countries with experience from SARS or MERS, previous outbreaks that happened. And I think it's really important that having given - been given now this terrible dose of reality over the last year plus, we have to learn the lessons of the crisis. That partly means getting to grips with it now and not relaxing our defenses. But it also means recognizing that we're living in a much more connected world. And so preparation for future pandemics through proper surveillance of outbreaks, proper international coordination, proper political leadership is absolutely essential. We have to fight the current crisis but also prepare for the next one.

SIMON: I don't know a way around putting it this bluntly. Why did a country possessed of the scientific genius like the United States, that has developed a couple of vaccines in record time, suffer so many deaths and casualties?

MILIBAND: Well, you could add to the bluntness of the question by saying, why did the country that was ranked No. 1 for global pandemic preparedness have such a failure? And we addressed that in the independent panel's report by saying that, essentially, those countries which fell victim to denialism, denialism about science and denialism about the disease, ended up in the worst situation. We saw that in the United States. We've also seen that in Brazil. Tragically, India declared victory over the virus in January, February of this year, and now we're seeing the consequences. And so if you have political leaders who go into denial about the nature of the virus, its transmissibility and its virulence, you're asking for trouble.

SIMON: Panel also says that vaccine distribution is, quote, "blatantly unjust and not strategic." How do you convince good citizens that promoting and paying for vaccinations in poorer nations isn't just charity but good policy?

MILIBAND: I think you explained that none of us can be safe unless the whole world gets properly immunized against this disease. At the moment, the U.S. and other richer countries have two, three, four, five times the number of vaccines they need. We need redistribution of the existing excess vaccines and massive production of vaccines to meet the global requirement.

SIMON: You know that once a crisis is perceived to have passed, particularly something that is so often referred to as a once-in-a-century crisis, it's very easy to think, well, why should we upset and uproot everything when the chances of this happening again within our lifetimes is very small?

MILIBAND: Well, we need to make this a 1945 moment, not a 1918 moment. After the First World War - not just the war but the pandemic, actually - the world went back to business as usual. But after 1945, it didn't. It did learn some serious lessons. And all the science is clear. We're not going to be waiting another hundred years for the next pandemic if we don't take the danger seriously. The real threat is that the next pandemic is more virulent and more transmissible. And that's why we have been warned, and we need to act.

SIMON: Of course, we have to ask you this week as head - both head of the IRC and former foreign minister, what are your concerns this weekend about the situation in Gaza and Israel?

MILIBAND: Well, obviously, one has to be desperately concerned because there have been two myths in the last 30 years in the Middle East. One is that every problem in the Middle East comes back to Israel, Palestine, which is obviously not true if you look at the situation in Syria or Yemen or Iraq. But the second myth is that the Palestinian issue can be treated as a frozen conflict that has gone away. And that has clearly been shown to be wrong over the last tragic 10 days. And so I think anyone with strategic sense recognizes that both those myths need to be taken on and that the situation cannot be ignored.

SIMON: David Miliband is president of the International Rescue Committee. Thank you so much for being with us.

MILIBAND: Thank you very much indeed, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.