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The Responsibility to Report

Given the growing frequency and severity of viral epidemics, there simply is no excuse for the depth of the COVID-19 crisis. All governments urgently need to come together to create new mechanisms and protocols for preventing such disasters from recurring.

STOCKHOLM – An unprecedented threat demands an unprecedented response. Rarely, if ever, have governments had to shift into crisis-management mode as quickly as they have in the past few weeks. So far, the focus has been on the most immediate medical, political, and economic issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic – as it should be. But gradually, governments’ attention will have to turn to the longer-term consequences of the crisis, and to the need to prevent such disasters in the future.

There have been several severe global health threats in the past two decades. The epidemics of SARS in 2003, MERS in 2012, and Ebola in 2014-16 are just three examples of outbreaks that required a sustained multilateral response. Each episode had its own unique features: SARS emerged in China, MERS in Saudi Arabia, and Ebola in West Africa. But the lessons from all three are similar. Epidemics and the emergence of new diseases become more likely as a result of population growth, urbanization, deforestation, and production and distribution processes that crowd together many different species. And the expansion of global supply chains and international commerce, not to mention the growth in international air travel, enables contagious diseases to spread around the world more quickly than ever.

Just in the past decade, the World Health Organization has had to declare a health emergency no less than six times. Clearly, we have not taken the steps needed to meet new outbreaks with the kind of rapid, decisive action that could have prevented the coronavirus epidemic from spiraling out of control.

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