On Tuesday, May 19, Rabin Martin hosted a WHA side-event with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and global health expert Laurie Garrett and Rabin Martin CEO Jeff Sturchio. The virtual fireside chat focused on the urgent need for global health leadership to address the rapidly evolving COVID-19 crisis. Laurie and Jeff discussed thought-provoking questions and dire predictions around the pandemic and the global response. Setting the tone for the conversation, Jeff opened with a blunt question: “Given that we had opportunities to prepare, why didn’t we?”
Laurie’s response was equally direct: “There is no parallel. We have to stop looking to influenza as a comparison,” she warned. While emphasizing the uniqueness of the current crisis, Laurie offered a historical lens. Referring to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, she reminded the audience of the significant challenges in creating a vaccine or therapeutic – and the danger of hinging a response on a cure. “Don’t forget HIV emerged in the public’s mind in 1981. We still don’t have a vaccine. We still don’t have a cure.”
Given our lack of preparedness and failure to invest in public health, Laurie asserted, “We don’t have a response, we have panic.” This panic is causing paralysis, in some case impeding action across all levels of government. Inaction will exacerbate and extend the length of the crisis such that we may not “beat” the virus but rather see it become endemic: “The virus is going to keep coming back. We’ll have sparks that turn into wildfires. We need capacity to fight wildfires.”
Jeff and Laurie also addressed what Jeff termed a false dichotomy between addressing economic fallout and. fighting the public health crisis, noting how the two are intertwined. In terms of the path forward, Laurie urged greater attention to ensuring an equitable response given that, as global efforts currently stand, too many vulnerable populations are being left behind. COVID-19 did not cause inequities, but has brought to light the flawed health systems that result in disparities in access. “Even if we had the magic pill tomorrow, the ‘we’ would be a very small portion of the planet,” she said.
The conversation ended on a sobering note. Warning of the challenges ahead, she said, “We’re just in the first pages of the first chapter of a very long novel.” The collaboration and speed of innovation – especially in the vaccines arena – has been inspiring, but that same speed may compromise the integrity of decisions. “We’re racing so fast that we’re risking making a mistake…A mistake can be irreversible.”
A recording of the event may be found here.