Three years ago … What did the start of the COVID pandemic unleash for you?

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On Jan. 30, 2020, Dr. Tedros of the WHO declared SARS-CoV-2 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. How did your experience during those early days of the pandemic shape the years that have followed? As we mark the third anniversary of the declaration of the pandemic, I took myself back in time to remember what it unleashed for me in the first hundred days (or thereabouts) of COVID.  

Our last hurrah before lockdown. Just a few days before Jan. 30th, family and friends had been celebrating my partner’s 50th birthday — it turned out to be our “last hurrah” before COVID-19 struck.  

Increasing anxiety. As momentum around this news cycle gained speed, a creeping anxiety about this pandemic was building in me — a sense of foreboding that this was going to change everything. The weeks wore on, and as a Brit in Belgium I was watching with alarm as the U.K. and its (former) EU partners made very different choices from each other — or indeed, in some cases failed to make choices at all. I became focused on the idea that rich country neglect would lead to “us” exporting the pathogen to, among other places, Africa. While the origin story started in Asia, it was Europe — and the north of Italy — that became the next frontier at that time.  

Finding like-minded activists. I wanted civil society to speak up, and started connecting with activist friends — and by March I had connected with like-minded colleagues, one old, two new, and together we began planning in earnest for a cross-sector network that would tackle pandemic preparedness and COVID-19. 

COVID at home. By March 14, 2020 COVID-19 was in our house. My partner was isolated in our bedroom, describing a heavy weight on his chest and difficulty breathing — a strong man who has never even had so much as the flu was completely floored by COVID-19, and the effects lingered. Back then I attempted to home school the boys downstairs introducing “fun subjects” such as astrology (quite successful), map making (less so), and gamifying the sanitizing of the house (“Wipe as many door handles as you can! Let’s count how many there are!” – no, they weren’t convinced either), to distract us all from what was unfolding in the world, and upstairs, and to find comfort in routine.  

Launch, and devastating loss. As the weeks leapt forward, Pandemic Action Network launched on April 22, 2020 with 25 founding partners, aiming to end this pandemic, prepare for future threats, and put a stop to the cycle of panic and neglect. But this was the day the world lost a very special person to COVID-19: Julian Perry Robinson. Julian was a beautiful soul, the husband of my friend Mary Kaldor — a man who spent his life working to enhance controls on chemical and biological weapons and who with his collaborator partner Matthew Meselson had turned down the Nobel Peace Prize, no less — stating the process of the CBW treaty needed to be honoured, not individuals — a lesson in humility. His passing and his legacy made a lasting impression on me and I was struck by the lessons for our own fight.  

Fast forward to 2023. In that confusing time, in life with family and friends, and professionally, with my new-found colleagues, it was the coming together of people and their passions which kept things moving — and that togetherness powers the Network today. Pandemic Action Network is working with its 350 incredible partners in 2023 on key priorities, to:

  • Unlock hundreds of billions in financing from Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) to support low- and middle-income countries as they tackle climate change, pandemics, and development challenges;
  • Push for leaders to show up and step up on preventing and preparing for pandemics — including at the UN High-Level Meeting in New York this September — rather than waiting for the worst to happen; and
  • Raise the capital needed, whether through MDBs or other innovative sources, to fund prevention and preparedness progress, including via the Pandemic Fund which needs just US$10.5 billion a year to start filling the most critical gaps in low- and middle-income countries.  

Looking back at those early days is emotional for several reasons — but also motivating, galvanizing, and humbling — my experience was very privileged compared to so many, and yet, important in my life. 

Thank you to all the partners working to keep pandemics at the top of the agenda, and in loving memory of all those who lost loved ones as a result of COVID-19.

What does this milestone mean to you? We are collecting thoughts from across our Network to share on Pandemic Action Network’s social media channels the week of the three-year anniversary. Share your reflection with us!