Killing Locally or Killing Globally? Inequalities in Framing Cooperation Through Pandemics

This post was originally published on the Verfassungsblog as part of our joint symposium on international pandemic lawmaking.

By Luciano Bottini Filho

COVID-19 made “pandemic” a buzzword. The world expressed anxiety on the eve of a pandemic declaration from the WHO, a decision monitored as closely as the white smoke for a newly elected pope. Yet, “pandemic” has no legal value in international law by contrast with a declaration of public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). It is no accident that the 12th Commission of the Institute of International Law issued a report on Epidemics and International Law, which bluntly avoided the term pandemic.

Despite this, for the general public, the role of a PHEIC determination remains unknown. Given the inconsistency in declaring PHEIC (only 6 events between 2007 and 2020), many epidemics of considerable proportion were ignored by the international community. Yet the mismatch in the general public consciousness regarding the legal implications triggered by a WHO declaration of a PHEIC is not as problematic as the way lawyers and public health practitioners reinforce the centrality of a pandemic, a concept that still requires a more solid definition.

As an international instrument potentially moves forward to galvanize “pandemics” as a legally defined term — and part of global health governance — we must understand the implication that this word has in relation to disparities between developing countries‘ problems and the interests of their richer counterparts. After all, any pandemic would have originated from one or more national epidemics, but it would require a globally recognized procedure to trigger stronger international obligations. As opposed to pandemics, though, epidemics have persisted for decades and raged in low- and low-middle income settings from Zika to Ebola, demanding support from international actors.

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The Globalization of Infectious Diseases

By Rachel Sachs

The recent arrival of Ebola in the United States has captured the attention of both the public and the media for many reasons.  One key reason is that Ebola is making many people realize for the first time that serious diseases which were formerly confined largely to developing countries have the potential to spread more widely across the globe.  But Ebola is not the first infectious disease to spread in this way, and it’s valuable for Americans to realize that many diseases which are often viewed as existing only in developing countries are already present in the developed world, due to a complex set of factors including migration and climate change.

Specifically, serious diseases transmitted by insects like chikungunya, dengue fever, and Chagas disease are already here in the United States.  I blogged here in August about DARPA’s prize to predict the spread of chikungunya, and the CDC’s estimates suggest that the disease may be finding a foothold in this country, with 11 locally-transmitted cases in addition to the more than 1500 travel-associated cases confirmed so far in 2014.  Compared to an average of just 28 cases per year since 2006, the spread is concerning.  Scientists also contend that dengue fever, a disease with similarly debilitating symptoms, is now endemic to Florida.

The case of Chagas is even more dramatic.  Categorized by the CDC as a “neglected parasitic infection,” it is estimated that 300,000 infected people live in the United States.  That’s ten times as many people as are diagnosed with ALS, a disease which has made much more of a mark on the public consciousness.  Chagas’ impact (both human and economic) on the United States’ health system is and will continue to be extremely costly, with one study estimating the economic cost to the United States at roughly $900 million annually.  Some of these costs are indirect — for instance, donated blood must now be screened for the presence of the parasite, to prevent its transmission.  But most are direct.  Over the long term, Chagas can cause severe, even fatal damage to the heart and gastrointestinal tract.  Read More