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.