COVID pandemic can help bridge rich-poor divide

27 January 2021

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew

Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic is fertile ground to address global inequities and create a more equal world but have warned governments could be missing the chance.

In a call to arms published in The Lancet, Professor Christine Phillips and Honorary Professor Mahomed Said Patel from The Australian National University (ANU) argue the COVID-19 pandemic offers an unprecedented chance to address major inequities in wealth, health, social protection and access to basic services.   

"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew," they write.

"This one is no different. The global community could come together to create new institutions or mechanisms to address the structural causes of global inequity and promote the wellbeing of people and the planet."

Professor Patel, from The Research School of Population Health, said our immediate pandemic response "is like fighting a bushfire". 

"Any Australian knows that it is better to prevent bushfires than to fight them. We are currently in a global fight against COVID-19," he said. 

"Some countries - including Australia - are proving to be excellent pandemic-fighters. But so far, the international community has done little to develop the policies to prevent the next pandemic. 

"This requires developing global agreements on preventing the next infectious disease pandemic such as how to produce and distribute food, manage the environment, and address inequalities between and within communities.  Like climate change policy-making, this isn't easy, and it's a long haul effort."

According to Professor Patel, the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to reshape the rich-poor gap in policymaking globally and domestically to prevent the next pandemic, with Australia playing a leading role.  

"Australia is a middle power which should be engaged in supporting and brokering initiatives to engage with voices within our region and globally to prevent the next pandemic," he said.

Professor Patel and Professor Phillips say now is the time to drive our "moral imagination" to make populations see more equitable health outcomes if we are to prevent the next pandemic.

"The moral imagination - seeing the world from different stances to envision a wider spectrum of possibilities for a post-COVID-19 world - requires us to examine how problems and their solutions are framed," Professor Phillips said.

The researchers argue policy-making should also "articulate diverse perspectives and avoid the too-early consensus or broad-brush solutions that can characterise expert panels".

"Health leaders and policymakers are likely to make better decisions for the aftermath of COVID-19 if they are presented with a range of voices, including those from outside the political and economic centre, that propose contesting, viable pathways to recovery for a healthier and more equal future for people and the planet," Professor Phillips said.