The World Health Organisation and member countries, including Nepal, of WHO South-East Asia Region today discussed strengthening the health emergency security systems to effectively respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for future health emergencies.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has posed myriad challenges at an unprecedented level. Globally, no country was prepared enough to deal with an emergency of this scale. It is critical that lessons learned from the ongoing pandemic are utilised to inform our efforts to strengthen health security systems," said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director of WHO South- East Asia, at the 74th Regional Committee meeting hosted by Nepal virtually.

Strengthening emergency risk management has been a flagship priority programme of WHO South-East Asia Region since 2014, which has consistently been scaling up response capacities since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a mega disaster that hit six countries of the Region.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the member countries of the region had adopted the 'Delhi Declaration' to strengthen emergency preparedness capacities by scaling up risk assessment, increasing investments, and enhancing implementation of multi-sectoral plans.

Over the years, the member countries have made considerable progress in implementing the International Health Regulations, 2005 for health emergency preparedness and response.

"The countries fully utilised the existing core capacities to control transmission and save lives while trying to confront the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic," the regional director said, adding that, "Critical gaps in our health security systems and arrangements need to be addressed."

The member countries held discussions on reviewing and reforming various aspects of preparedness, including but not limited to emergency governance structures and workforce, surveillance and alert mechanisms, laboratory, supply management systems, health-care system preparedness and risk communication and community engagement.

As per the press release issued by the WHO, the ongoing response has demonstrated that the highest level of political leadership and involvement and functional multisectoral arrangements are crucial in making preparations and responding to severe health emergencies.

Such arrangements enable timely, decisive and large scale actions, such as whole-of-government, whole-of-society responses and mobilisation of financial resources. These arrangements should be continuously reviewed and strengthened.

Another important lesson learned from the pandemic is that the countries need to make plans for extraordinary scale of surge capacities across the gamut of response from surveillance and contact tracing to clinical management, laboratory testing, vaccination, and community engagement.

The pandemic has accentuated the importance of effective alert mechanism which ensures early notification and information sharing for global risk assessments and coordinated, timely and decisive responses.

"Another lesson learnt from the ongoing pandemic is the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical Public Health and Social Measures," said the WHO.

A version of this article appears in the print on September 10 2021, of The Himalayan Times.