Parliamentarians Unite Forces Globally to Advance Pandemic Treaty 
From left to right UNITE and IFGH parliamentarians: Neema Lugangira, Tanzania; Mariam Jashi, Georgia; Marie-Rose Nguini Effa, Cameroon; Andrew Ullmann, Germany; Gisela Scaglia, Argentina; Ayesha Mohammed ALMulla, United Arab Emirates.

BERLIN – If a new treaty that rewrites the global rules for pandemic response is really approved by the World Health Assembly by May 2024, as planned, that will still only be the beginning of the journey. 

The new international accord will still have to be ratified by a critical mass of WHO´s 194 member states in order to really become operational. And that means agreement over the treaty´s principles by the tens of thousands of elected politicians representing the very diverse, and oft-conflicting views of their constituencies about global health goals and priorities. 

With that in mind, a group of parliamentarians from about two dozen countries gathered under the auspices of the UNITE Global Parliamentarians Network for a panel discussion on the second day of the World Health Summit, to outline what they see as key ingredients in a successful pandemic recipe – one that could win support not only from global leaders but in countries the world over.  

The UNITE network is also gearing up to provide formal inputs to the WHO member state Intergovernmental Negotiating Board (INB) negotiating the pandemic instrument.

In that role, they´re leading a working group of a dozen international parliamentary assemblies and networks, the  International Forum on Global Health, which convened in April to discusss the pandemic treaty, just ahead of the World Bank and IMF spring meetings. And they are set to sign an MoU with the World Health Organization on Tuesday, paving the way for more formal channels of collaboration with WHO on their work with parliamentarians. 

Ricardo Baptista Leite, UNITE founder and president, Portugal

¨We have a lot of work ahead of us and the role of parliamentarians is critical,¨ said Ricardo de Dr. Ricardo Baptist Leite, the Portuguese politician and medical doctor who is the head of UNITE, and a driving force behind the global health movement of elected officials.

¨We need to make sure that this pandemic treaty, convention, or legal agreement is not composed in corridors and then imposed on the people, but is actually something built from the people, for the people. 

¨I think this is huge opportunity for us to work together with the World Health Organization to achieve this ambitious goal.¨

Engaging political opponents, ensuring democratic freedoms

Mariam Jashi, former parliamentarian, Georgia describes the erosions in democracy during the pandemic.

The COVID pandemic saw basic freedoms eroded in many countries, observed Dr. Mariam Jashi, a former parliamentarian from Georgia.

Jashi was among the half dozen UNITE members from countries in Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East who etched their vision of how to ensure the treaty´s acceptance and eventual ratification.

Topping that list was simple engagement of national politicians as partners, early on in the negotiating process.

The challenge of engaging elected politicians in the process is all the more urgent in light of sensitivities to political constituencies, who emerged from the crisis distrustful and burnt by the loss of basic freedoms during lockdowns, and of government more broadly. 

Status of democracy was eroded during pandemic

¨The status of democracy and human rights in over 80 countries deteriorated during the pandemic,¨ she said, citing research by the watchdog group Freedom House. ¨Many countries, especially in low and middle income countries have not engaged opposition political leaders or public health experts or different political parties in the discussions around the restriction measures.

¨Some of the measures were not evidenced based…And in the name of fighting the pandemic, we´ve seen different levels of political manipulation unfortunately. So we have to consider those challenges while designing the new global treaty for  pandemic, preparedness, prevention and response. And what could be the role of parliamentarians?¨ she asked. 

¨We can definitely bring discussion of the official negotiating draft to the parliaments. We have to facilitate non-partisan discussions around the treaty; we have to make sure that every party is represented during the dialogue and discussions. That  can bring better ownership.

Providing finance to implement the treaty will also be key – as the carrot that accompanies the stick of any tougher compliance measures on outbreak alert and responses.

¨We also have to ensure that we not only adopt a very comprehensive document, but  to really provide concrete tools and instruments to the countries to implement those regulations,¨ Jashi said. 

¨We can empower WHO,  and empower implementation of global health recommendations through linking international financial institutions´ funding to performance based assessments, of how they observe the Global Health regulations.¨

Build health literacy among politicians as well as health workers 

Neema Lugangira: need to build capacity among politicians to understand health concepts and terms.

Neema Lugangira, a Tanzanian member of parliament also cited the need to build more health literacy among elected politicians.

¨During the pandemic, a lot of (outreach) efforts and focus was geared to health professionals, but we forgot about the power that parliamentarians have to distort everything that health professionals say,¨ she observed.

¨So in this global pandemic treaty that is being proposed, we must be proactive in engaging parliamentarians in capacitating us to understand.

Lugangira described her own difficulties in coming to grips with new concepts and terms that were never explained:

¨I saw this as a weak point. As a politician, it’s not very easy to get a clear understanding of issues like mRNA and DNA vaccines.  And if you don´t get a clear understanding, then you will not communicate effectively to the people that you are leading. 

¨So in this global pandemic treaty that is being proposed, we have to be proactive with parliaments, engaging them and recognizing the importance of capacity building for parliamentarians – that parliamentarians are partners in the process.¨

Discuss with parliaments as well as with ministries

Typically, when WHO proposes new global health policies, ¨It’s very common that discussions will be with governments, meaning the respective ministries, but not necessarily parliament,¨ she pointed out.

¨And then all of a sudden, as parliamentarians, we are expected to use that document, to champion it, to  advocate for it –  but we were not involved in the process. 

¨So it’s very important ….to make sure that we are involved at the beginning of the process. – how can we now take this from a global level to our national parliaments?¨ 

A treaty – not a directive from the global north

Another issue of concern is the perception in low- and middle-income countries that the proposed legal accord will be designed largely to suit the needs of the global north.

Related to this, politicians and voices in the north have tended to emphasize a set of priorities centered around the need for more prompt outbreak alert, notification and responses. Conversely, politicians and advocates from developing countries stress the need for more equitable access to medicines and stronger health systems to both cope with emerging threats, and ensure better responses.

¨This is something that we have to be very candid about, and very careful about,¨ Lugangira warned. ¨because sometimes what works in Europe or in the US or in Canada, or in Australia, may not work in Africa. And what works in South Africa may not work in Tanzania,¨ 

¨The global treaty should include us, from the global south in the discussions. If this is not addressed, it can end up being a global north pandemic treaty that is then a directive for us from the global south.¨ 

Equity another key principle 

Key to that sense of balance is equity in access to not only healthcare and health products but also capacity to use them, Lugangira stressed.  She noted that in the early stages of the crisis, vaccine distribution by rich countries to poorer neighbors seemed to be mostly a fig leaf – ¨ticking a box¨  But as time passed, there was growing recognition in even the strongest economies that they could not buy their way out of the pandemic alone. 

¨We are in this together, and in a way I think God somehow made the global north realize that  if all systems are not strong enough, you’re not strong.

Ensuring adequate finance as well as ¨digital inclusion¨ of developing countries in a future accord is critical to creating a win-win scenario going forward. 

¨During the pandemic, there was a huge effort on making sure that, for instance, that we were recording the number of people being vaccinated. But for that to work effectively, we need digital inclusion. Linked to that, pandemic preparedness requires financing; to implement this global pandemic treaty requires financing. Will that financing be available? Or are we going to find ourselves again in the same situation of privilege versus non non privilege?¨

Nutrition, gender and the right to health 

Gisela Scaglia, Argentina, says gender equality needs to be embedded into a pandemic accord.

Panelists also stressed that recognizing the links between health, and broader social concerns  – from nutrition to gender equality – will also help pave the way to parliamentarians´ wider acceptance of any eventual treaty. 

¨Women and children were the most vulnerable populations during the pandemic,¨said Gisela Scaglia, a  former member of parliament in Argentina. Women suffered the consequences of isolation. They saw their rights restricted and  increased violence against them. Access to contraception was restricted. They suffered the consequences of a pandemic that deprives women of access to their routine medical checkups.

¨Nowadays we can see an increase of many non-transmissible diseases, such as breast cancer, because of the absence of checks for the two years or more,¨ Scaglia added, concluding that ¨We should include as a priority gender equality. 

¨Finally, we cannot face the next pandemic with restrictions on education,¨ she added. ¨In my country, for two years, the schools were closed.  The government tried to do virtual education, but it was a mess… The gap between people with connectivity and access to technology, and people without, was big. And this was a huge inequality.¨ 

Parliamentarians at the center of cross-sectoral processes 

The comments illustrate how linkage of the pandemic accord to broader concerns about well-being can ensure that politicians appreciate the benefits of a treaty, and align with its aims and goals, said Roland Göhde, of the German Health Alliance (GHA) which co-sponsored the session with UNITE. 

¨With all of their roles and responsibilities, parliamentarians are both at the center of the processes in very specific pillars that provide health care, justice, equity, economic support, education, and at the intersection, with overaps, areas of interconnection and interaction,¨he pointed out. 

More than ever before, political leadership needs to focus on systemic strategies from a holistic perspective,¨ Gohde added. ¨Exactly for this reason, the establishment in the international fora of global health, of a dedicated working group of 12 diverse parliamentary assemblies and networks worldwide, can only be seen and embraced as a truly very significant milestone.¨

Image Credits: Fletcher/Health Policy Watch, Fletcher/Health Policy Watch .

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