Coronavirus pandemic a chance to 'build back better', ensure there's future 'pandemic readiness' - Helen Clark

The coronavirus pandemic gives the world a chance to reset and "build back better", former Prime Minister Helen Clark says, with opportunities to build and maintain public health systems that can "snap into action" should a similar crisis arise again.

Speaking during a symposium about the post-COVID-19 reset at the University of Otago, Wellington, Clark said there are many ways the world can change as a result of the virus.

"Out of crisis always comes opportunity for change, for transformation, for innovation, and that moment needs to be seized around the world," she said.

"We're not short of agendas, what we've been short of is action. And one hopes the catastrophe the world's been going through with COVID might be a catalyst for saying, 'for heaven's sake, we have roadmaps, could we get back and focus on what needs to be done'."

In the reset, health, environment, and sustainability need to be addressed holistically, Clark said.

"The Planetary Health framework is as good a framework as any. It's very consistent with the general direction of the sustainable development goals, the Paris Agreement, and the other good global agreements that are out there."

The Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health says human health and the health of the planet are inextricably linked, and that civilisation depends on human health, flourishing natural systems, and the wise care of natural resources.

"The worst thing to do is despair because we do have opportunities to reset and build back better everywhere," Clark said.

She said COVID-19 has offered the chance to learn that a pandemic can't be dealt with "effectively" without the ability to "rapidly activate" public health infrastructure.

"You grieve, really, for a society like the United Kingdom with one of the world's older, comprehensive national health services, brought to its knees by a failure in public health."

The United Kingdom has recorded the fourth-highest number of cases globally, and some intensive care units across England have reported having no spare beds.

"[There should be a focus on] building and maintaining a public health system with infrastructure that can snap into action, pandemic readiness - it's not going to be the first time that we face this, it will come again," Clark said.

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker also spoke at the symposium and said many people are thinking about opportunities the broad post-COVID-19 reset offers, such as focussing on better management in major global health threats.

"Most New Zealanders want a green recovery, according to survey data, and also want a more equitable society, which really does assist in mounting a far more effective collective action against these threats," he said.

When thinking about the reset, he said it's important to think about the things that have a positive impact on public health equity and sustainability, and also what issues are advanced by the COVID-19 response. He added not everything is affected by it, but he started putting a list together of social issues that became more possible to tackle during this period.

"I know a number of people remarked on the fact that homelessness suddenly vanished, not entirely, but was largely managed during that period," Baker said.

As of August last year, all of Auckland's rough sleepers were housed in temporary accommodation for what was believed to be the first time ever.

"I think we became aware of the improved air quality, reduced commuting, and so on, particularly during the lockdown," he added.

The collective action of lockdown also meant New Zealand had its lowest level of meningococcal disease for 25 years, the flu season "vanished", excess winter mortality disappeared, which saved 1500 lives during the year, and people started thinking more about connectedness, food sovereignty, the benefits of universal basic income, and the quality and safety of workplaces, Baker said.

He also spoke about New Zealand's "world-leading response" when choosing to eliminate the virus rather than suppress it, and said this could help us in the future.

"I think the fact that New Zealand demonstrated this amazing agency over managing the COVID response does create new opportunities for us. I think it's also demonstrated the power of reinformed government and the link between science and leadership."