During a special session of the World Health Assembly on 1 December 2021, world leaders committed to an official negotiating procedure establishing a new International Pandemic Agreement. But what does this really mean in the context of the EU’s post-pandemic recovery plan, which features building stronger health resilience? As we look to lead international negotiations on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, we believe a new seat for civil society is needed at the negotiating table.
In the context of a fractured global health system, consultations with civil society and ‘rebuilding trust through inclusion’ are key factors to any new international agreement, agreed experts and politicians alike at a webinar hosted by the European Health Forum Gastein and AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) Europe on 25 January 2022. Yet many questions and challenges remain around the process of reaching such an agreement, including how trust — within and between nations, key stakeholders and the public — can be rebuilt along the way.
Leading by example and in solidarity with others, especially during times of crisis, is crucial. Without civil society, it will be very difficult to reach an agreement and common understanding. WHO special envoy on COVID, Dr Ayoade Alakija, reiterated my view as she stressed the importance of looking beyond COVID-19 to global injustice in areas of health, socioeconomics, education and more. “We cannot build a [global health] treaty if we’re not talking to and including those at the table who have lived the experience.”
“The European Parliament and civil society members such as AHF Europe are ready to contribute to better global health management for the world”
How to build a set of rules?
The WHO’s timeline for reaching an international agreement — with a landmark for adoption in May 2024 — was outlined by Ambassador for Global Health of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Stéphanie Seydoux. Comprising the [ongoing] establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating body (INB), four months of ‘broad public consultation’ between March and June 2022, a preliminary draft in August 2022, and a progress report in May 2023 — the elephant in the room remains: what will be the process for including stakeholders beyond nation states?
“There’s a general feeling that [public consultation with essential stakeholders] is a condition for success for this instrument. But it will sit with the INB to figure out the right way to do [the public consultations],” said Seydoux.
Citing the failure of world leaders to act with urgency and decisiveness throughout the last two years of the pandemic, President of AHF, Michael Weinstein, says he’s not optimistic about the plan. “Everyone nods to civil society, yet no one actually includes it. If we build a building on the foundation of the current [WHO] architecture, it will fall.” Instead, a stronger focus on coordination and “elevating global public health and disease prevention to the level of air traffic control” [i.e. one set of rules for the whole world] is needed, according to Weinstein. He also reiterated that the response to HIV/AIDS became more successful after the 2000s due to the voices of civil society and ‘the fight against intellectual property exclusion’.
The panel from a webinar hosted by the European Health Forum Gastein and AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) Europe on 25 January 2022 | Source: AHF Europe
This is a ‘one in 100-year opportunity’ to come together and shift world systems with urgency, according to Dr Alakija, who suggests it is time to straddle the lines between ‘activist’ and ‘government’. Seydoux agreed, saying, “We have to cross those lines. […] France demands attention to community-led responses and advocates for the diversity of what happens in a country, as much as we can.” Furthermore, the French EU Presidency aims to seize the opportunity to strengthen regional dialogue, and the EU’s leadership role in creating a global health response, at the EU-AU Summit on 17-18 February.
The European Parliament and civil society members such as AHF Europe are ready to contribute to better global health management for the world. We also recognise that the time has come for more action than words. We need to break down divisions within the health community and strive for transparent, inclusive, and accountable mechanisms, because stronger international rules are needed to address global health.
This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group