We’re heading towards the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted lives and livelihoods across the planet and led to at least 5.5 million deaths around the world.
As the Omicron COVID-19 variant surges in many countries – and indeed saw the deferral of an in-person meeting in Davos – the pandemic has been front of mind for many at The Davos Agenda.
So, where is the virus headed? Here’s what speakers from different sectors have said so far this week.
Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic
Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, opened this week by reminding us of the work that’s already been done.
“The international community has fought a tenacious battle,” he said.
The global vaccination drive has played a major role in the progress we’ve made so far, with Richard Hatchett, the CEO of CEPI, reminding us of the work of COVAX.
The vaccine-sharing facility, which CEPI co-leads alongside Gavi and the World Health Organization, delivered its one billionth dose of COVID-19 vaccines over the weekend.
The pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives, though, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reminded us – and that has driven the response in his country.
Endemic or pandemic?
The history of infectious diseases can tell us something about the next stages of the pandemic, Anthony Fauci, the Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained.
Endemicity would mean ‘a non-disruptive presence without elimination’, he said. Similar to other cold-weather upper respiratory infections or parainfluenzas, he explained.
We’re not going to eliminate this virus, he said.
Richard Hatchett said his long-term view is that we should anticipate COVID-19 will behave more like flu.
“It will continue to circulate, it will be around, people will get sick and there will be continual evolution of the virus.”
Mike Ryan, the Executive Director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, struck a cautionary tone though in the Meeting the Challenge of Vaccine Equity session.
“We won’t end the virus this year,” he said. “We may never end the virus. Pandemic viruses end up becoming part of the ecosystem. What we can end is the public health emergency.”
And, in terms of endemic versus pandemic, he was clear. “Endemic does not mean good,” he said, citing the examples of endemic malaria or endemic HIV which kill 100,000s of people. “Endemic just means it’s here forever.”
“What we need to do is get to low-levels of disease incidence, with maximum vaccination of our populations, so nobody has to die.” That’s the end of the emergency, that’s the end of the pandemic, he concluded.
COVID-19 vaccine coverage and equity
As Dr Ryan explained, COVID-19 vaccines are key to ending the public health emergency. But we must do better to distribute these equitably, he stressed.
“We need vaccine equity now,” urged UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday. This will allow us to find a way out of the pandemic, he said.
If we fail, we’ll “run out of letters in the Greek alphabet for new variants”, Olaf Scholz, Federal Chancellor of Germany, warned.
And what of the vaccines themselves? The vaccines are holding up very well against Omicron, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said. And manufacturers are working on developing COVID-19 vaccines for the northern hemisphere autumn.
Moderna is working towards a single shot that would contain a booster for COVID-19 and for flu, he said.
Social and economic change
Beyond the health impact, the pandemic has also had significant economic and social impacts. So what next for jobs, for economies, for growth?
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio looked towards the future of capitalism on Tuesday. He called for a new form of liberal democratic capitalism, balancing economic growth and distribution.
Inequalities in the labour market will need to be addressed, too, explained Jonas Prising, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of ManpowerGroup.
And Svein Tore Holsether, President and Chief Executive Officer, Yara International ASA, told us that a move from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism isn’t just needed, it’s expected, he said.
And, sustainability and environmental concerns will remain paramount – particularly in light of COP26.
Our lifestyles and our throwaway culture have exacerbated the climate challenge, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Monday. It’s essential we move towards a circular economy, he explained.
The next steps
The path is unlikely to be smooth though. Beyond the health challenges discussed above – vaccine equity, for example – hurdles need to be overcome in areas from trust to reform in global systems.
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, explained more about the issue of trust.
And she wasn’t alone. Speakers at the announcement of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship’s Social Innovators of the Year 2022 award were also clear on the issue of trust.
Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship’s Social Innovators of the Year 2022 @ProfKlausSchwab, Hilde Schwab (@schwabfound), @F_Bonnici, @SPradhanOGP (@opengovpart), Sam McCracken (@NikeN7), @hahriehan (@SNFAgoraJHU), @Prof_RanaDajani #SchwabAwards22 https://t.co/UkkRhL25pE
— World Economic Forum (@wef) January 18, 2022
The global community needs to work together, even more than it has already, speakers from across sessions agreed. This is particularly important to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines, explained President Xi Jinping.
And reform is needed, whether of global financial systems, or the means by which we can equitably produce and distribute vaccines.