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World Bank Group Head on Pandemics: We’re Dangerously Unprepared

JANUARY 28, 2015 – JIM YONG KIM, PRESIDENT of the World Bank Group, warned that the world is “dangerously unprepared” for future pandemics during Georgetown’s inaugural Global Futures lecture Jan. 27 in historic Gaston Hall.

“We need to make sure that we get to zero cases in this Ebola outbreak,” Kim told the university audience. “At the same time, we need to prepare for future pandemics that could become far more deadly and infectious than what we have seen so far with Ebola.”

In a talk called "Lessons from Ebola: Toward a Post-2015 Strategy for Pandemic Response,” Kim laid out a vision for a more coordinated pandemic response that would feature collaboration among insurance companies, governments, multi-lateral organizations, corporations and international donors.

Creating Partnerships

“Could a huge pandemic happen tomorrow?” asked Kim, who co-founded Partners in Health with Paul Farmer in 1987 and subsequently directed the World Health Organization’s HIV/AIDS department. “Yes.”

Kim cited a poll of over 30,000 global insurance executives, who collectively named pandemics as the single greatest risk to their industry – above natural disasters and water crises.

His proposed partnership with the private sector would improve capacity for a pandemic response through a combination of bonds and insurance mechanisms that would operate in some ways like a homeowner’s insurance policy.

“We have got to make sure that we put in place the instruments that can protect the global economy and people from these shocks that we know will happen,” he said.

Low Aspirations

The number of Ebola cases in West Africa has surpassed 22,000, with more than 8,700 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We never should have gotten to this place,” said Kim, who acknowledged that the World Bank Group and others responded too slowly to the outbreak.

After the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, public health officials had hoped to develop an emergency fund and other systems to deal with a future outbreak, like Ebola.

“We just didn’t do it,” said Kim. “It’s part of what I would call a very long history of low aspirations of providing health care for poor people.”

 “It is a stain on our collective consciousness,” he added.

A Longer Conversation

Kim’s lecture was the first presentation in a series by World Bank Group leaders that will take place this semester.

“It is the ethos – the characteristic spirit of the university – to seek the betterment of humankind,” said Georgetown President John J. DeGioia in his opening remarks. “This spirit is at the core of the Global Futures Initiative – an initiative which brings together the resources of our tradition with the ambition of our community to discern and model what it means to be an engaged global university in service to the wider world.”

Kim will give a second lecture in March on climate change, and the bank group’s senior vice president and chief economist, Kaushik Basu, will deliver lectures in February and April on the economic dimensions of development.

The Global Futures Initiative, led by Thomas Banchoff, the university’s vice president for global engagement, is designed to address critical issues by inviting Georgetown community members over the next two years to engage with global leaders in the public sector, business and civil society, and to take up innovative teaching and research agendas.

An international group of scholars, students and practitioners will reflect on Kim’s remarks and continue the conversation on the global future of development through a Global Futures blog.