Diseases without borders

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Diseases without borders

DAVOS - Today’s world seems more risk-laden than ever. The increasingly visible effects of climate change, rising geopolitical tensions, state crisis and collapse, inadequate or unequal economic opportunities, and the spread of infectious diseases - to name just some of the highest-profile threats - have created an environment of great uncertainty. Will 2015 be the year when these risks come to a head, or the moment when world leaders come together to develop real strategies for mitigating them?

This week, I am joining leaders from the worlds of business, government, politics, the arts, and academia at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss the risks that the world faces. Of course, determining which challenges merit the most attention will not be easy.

That is where the WEF’s annual Global Risks reports can help. Drawing on the perspectives of roughly 900 experts and decision-makers from around the world who participate in the WEF’s global risks-perception survey, this year’s report found that, for the first time in its 10-year history, economic risks are taking a backseat to environmental and geopolitical concerns.

Specifically, participants rated interstate conflict with regional consequences as the top risk, in terms of likelihood, facing the world in 2015, with extreme weather events coming in second. The top risks in terms of impact were water crises and the spread of infectious diseases.

The point, of course, is not simply to highlight how much danger the world currently faces. By illuminating experts’ top-rated risks, the report highlights important opportunities for action. According to WEF founder Klaus Schwab, 2015 can be a “year of destiny for humankind.” Indeed, if global leaders - from multilateral organizations, governments, the private sector and civil society groups - seize opportunities for closer cooperation, long-simmering risks can be cooled before they boil over.

One area where concerted, collaborative action can make a major difference is the spread of infectious diseases. During the meeting in Davos, officials will discuss the creation of a new global pandemic emergency facility that would enable countries to respond quickly to crises within their borders by providing them with the needed funds.

To understand how badly the world needs this capacity, one need look no further than the ongoing Ebola pandemic, which has ravaged West African societies, claiming thousands of lives and upending many more. A rapid and determined response could have done much to contain the virus. But the international response was delayed and inadequate.

Indeed, six months into the crisis, just 30 medical-response teams were treating and caring for patients on the ground in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The shortage of health workers, facilities and supplies prevented many people from receiving treatment, allowing the virus to spread further.

Fear of the disease’s seemingly inexorable spread hampered trade, business activity and travel in the affected countries. In December, the World Bank downgraded its growth estimates for the formerly fast-growing economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which are now expected to lose $1.6 billion in income in 2015.

In order to become better prepared to tackle future pandemics, the world must invest now in strengthening public health systems, bolstering developing countries’ disease-prevention capacity and establishing new and flexible financing instruments. A global pandemic emergency facility could mobilize public and private resources and frontload financing, so that when a global health emergency arises, funding is in place to support an immediate response at scale. As the Ebola crisis has demonstrated, passing the hat once a pandemic has taken hold is far too time-consuming and carries huge economic and, more important, human costs.

Such a global resource could underpin the development of a comprehensive strategy to address the next outbreak, including a plan for putting health workers and supplies on the ground quickly. It could even provide a market signal for producers of vaccines and drugs.

The WEF’s Global Risks report emphasizes the need for robust plans to face the threat of pandemics. This is especially urgent in light of the rapid growth of cities and informal settlements - where infectious diseases can spread more easily - in developing countries. We need to start creating those plans now. After all, we do not know when the next pandemic will strike.

We cannot eliminate global risk. We can, however, make our economies and societies more resilient and thus better equipped to minimize the impact of the threats we face. In this sense, forward-thinking initiatives like the global pandemic emergency facility are crucial to making the world a safer place for all of us. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

*The author is president of the World Bank Group.

by Jim Yong Kim

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