Helen Clark: Another global pandemic possible if nations don’t prepare

Thu, Mar 23

WHO pandemic panel co-chair Helen Clark says the world is in the "neglect phase" of preparing for the next pandemic as Covid-19 slowly recedes into the background.

Speaking to Breakfast, the former prime minister said the process of implementing better pandemic preparations was akin to "water torture" despite estimates that up to 20 million people were killed as a result of Covid.

Clark is the co-chair of the World Health Organisation's Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response — set up during the first coronavirus outbreaks in 2020.

"A lot of our recommendations as from our panel are being followed, but the process is like water torture," the former prime minister said.

"It is slow, and these threats are always there, so we can't waste time."

She said Covid could be the last global pandemic if nations did enough to prepare. Today is the three-year anniversary of the announcement of New Zealand's first lockdown.

"We have not had a pandemic on the scale since the 1918 flu epidemic, and there is a cycle of panic and neglect that sets in with these things," the panel co-chair said.

"We've been through the panic phase. We managed it – New Zealand actually did a lot better than most countries, but the world's into the neglect phase.

"If we don't capture these lessons of history and how to be better prepared — then yes, we could face it all again."

Covid-19 testing.

Clark also weighed in on the lack of scientific consensus as to how Covid-19 originated, saying that "we just don't know" since there wasn't any "firm evidence".

In the past week, WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus has called on China to release more data from the beginning of the pandemic as claims continue to circulate that the virus could have escaped from a laboratory.

In any case, Clark said it was important that future "zoonotic events" with pandemic potential are quickly "nipped in the bud" before they could come to engulf the planet.

"We have to be prepared so that these threats do get nipped in the bud, so we are not faced with what happened at Covid where the real death toll globally now almost certainly exceeds 20 million, and where the hit to the global economy was something like $25 trillion."

She said New Zealand health officials "had to do a lot of things on the fly" amid the first Covid-19 outbreak and that the Government's inquiry into how it handled the pandemic needed to be useful and taken onboard.

"I hope it's useful because it could lead to purpose-ready legislation. We had to do a lot of things on the fly here because we hadn't been confronted like this since 1918.

"After the SARS outbreak In 2003, when I was PM, we did do a review of how we responded to that threat — which fortunately — did not materialise in New Zealand. Out of that came purpose-ready legislation, the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006."

In one of her last moves as prime minister, Jacinda Ardern announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry last December into New Zealand's Covid-19 response.