We need global solutions for global challenges - why Omicron is a lesson for us all 

The spread of the Omicron variant in the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of shared global learning

The spread of the Omicron variant in the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of shared global learning Image: Photo by Martin Sanchez at Unsplash

Junaid Nabi
Senior Fellow, The Aspen Institute
Gurpreet Brar
Global Client Leader , Edelman
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  • The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the increase in global connectivity and importance of global solutions.
  • The development of variants such as Omicron requires nations working together to reduce inequalities.
  • The health and economic damage from the global pandemic needs all nations to work collaboratively to restore services.

The emergence of the Omicron variant in the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that the world is increasingly connected. The reality is that it is almost impossible to contain a virus in one country or region, and soon it will spread everywhere. Therefore, leaders from all countries must develop global solutions for the management of pandemics.

Inequality created by nations

Many “nation-first” leaders in the Global North did not recognize the impact of connectivity sooner, directly leading to the uncontrollable spread of the coronavirus and the development of novel variants. These variants have complicated the pandemic response as they sometimes evade the immune response induced by initial doses of the vaccine.

The current distribution of vaccines also underscores a stark distinction between the citizens of the Global North and those who reside in low- and middle-income countries. While policymakers debate third and fourth vaccine doses in many developed countries, more than 1 billion people in Africa are still waiting for their first shot. And all the while, we will soon run out of letters in the Greek alphabet to name variants.

This interconnectedness between nations applies from health issues to technological advances. The most important lesson from the ongoing pandemic for policymakers is that grand challenges around the world are global.

The biggest global challenge is containing the health and economic damage from the ongoing pandemic—this will require leaders to undertake a global solution that comprises three core strategies. These include fostering collaboration across nations, explicit commitment to inclusion, and investing in data management systems that enable data-driven decision-making.

Why we need global collaboration

The urgent need for fostering collaboration across nations is abundantly clear from the ongoing public health crisis of COVID-19. Instead of a piecemeal donation approach to the distribution of vaccines from high-income nations to nations with low resources, we would have observed lasting benefits if the vaccine manufacturing capacities were shared.

Such collaboration should also include sharing of information. For example, one of the reasons the death toll from the Omicron variant was lower than the Delta variant was that scientists in South Africa shared the details of the variant genome promptly, along with subsequent reporting of the clinical characteristics of the affected patients, enabling other countries to develop time-sensitive policies.

The second strategy required for addressing global problems is policymakers’ commitment to inclusion. Power dynamics continue to play an important role on the global stage—nations with low power continue to be sidelined and their concerns ignored. The impact of this dynamic can be observed in the conversations around climate change. When countries such as the Maldives—an island nation that is threatened by rising sea levels—highlight the urgency of developing climate resilience, countries in the West ignore the concerns as they do not “see” the impact of their negligence.

Investing in data management systems and sharing insights is another important element of building global solutions. While obvious at this stage of the pandemic, data collection of COVID-19 infections—at the regional, state, national, and international levels—was practically negligible regarding most global health or development indicators. These numbers have allowed policymakers around the world to devise public health strategies—from deciding on travel bans to lockdowns.

Similar data management systems—on health, economic, and social indicators—can enable global leaders to find areas of mutual interest and collaboration. The development of these management systems can be accelerated by adopting a digital transformation framework—that is, clearing articulating goals, aligning stakeholder interests, and creating digital solutions that can scale rapidly.

To be sure, recent trends also highlight that there is a growing “global consciousness.” For instance, a recent Edelman Trust Barometer survey outlined that 75% of global citizens were worried about the global problem of climate change, while approximately 71% were worried about cyber security and the regulation of technology.

We increasingly find ourselves in a multi-polar and multi-authority world. It is also clear that a multi-polar world does make it more challenging to drive consensus and action. On issue after issue, the interests of one group do not always serve the needs and expectations of another, resulting in a log jam when it comes to driving change. When we look at some of the key challenges driving the global system today—from pandemic management and resilience, climate action and sustainable growth, tech regulation, to data security—we continue seeing global policy divergence rather than convergence. These global issues necessitate investments in building capacity for thoughtful global solutions.

The question is: How quickly can we learn from our past mistakes?

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Related topics:
COVID-19AfricaGlobal HealthHealth and Healthcare
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