Close to a year after the first strains of Covid-19 were detected in China’s Wuhan and post the deaths of lakhs and many more afflictions around the world, a terribly belated prognosis is now on the anvil. The outbreak has had hideous ramifications, but few within the comity of nations may be aware of the origins of coronavirus, still less on how it spread.
Even China has been secretive to the extent possible. Almost coinciding with the United States pulling out of the World Health Organization this week, the UN entity has put in place a committee of inquiry, to be led by the former New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, and the former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to evaluate the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The inquiry is a profoundly important initiative that impacts the world despite the fact that WHO has, over the past few months, been under a cloud for its handling of the virus in China. This in turn has led to a geopolitical conflict between the US and China. The committee will produce an interim report in November and a full report in May 2021.
The pandemic has been as unrelenting as it is accelerating. If the report is crafted with independence and authority, it should help to produce a better model of international and national responses to future pandemics. There has been much by way of fumbling and rhetoric, far too little of assertive action.
The world has reached a stage when lessons need to be learned; “indeed we are learning them the whole time”, to summon the words of the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who has been a supporter of an early and independent WHO inquiry but has been prevaricating, nonetheless.
At another remove, Sweden, which has also followed a radically different path in its handling of the pandemic, set up an independent inquiry towards the end of June, with politicians excluded, perhaps rightly. Its inquiry will produce an early report on care homes, followed by an interim report in the spring and a final report in 2022.
France, another country that has already set up an inquiry, has established a parliamentary commission with wide powers. The raging crisis may have surpassed the humanitarian crisis after the Second World War. Enough time has been lost already. And if governments don’t act, civil society must do so. First, there should be a rapid, independent and transparent review of what has worked and not worked so far in order to equip us against a second coronavirus wave.
Second, parliamentarians should establish a special select committee on the pandemic with powers to summon witnesses and documents. At the end of the day, much will hinge on whether civil society and the legislatures can suitably exert pressure. In order to be effective, inquiries must of necessity be part of a concerted international effort. The world is on test as Nature has decisively won the first round.