Experts had foreseen a coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 has still inflicted untold damage on the world. Will we draw the right lessons this time?


A man walks past a poster warning that consuming wildlife is illegal, in Guangzhou, China, 25 May 2020. (EPA-EFE/ALEX PLAVEVSKI)

In October 2019, leading minds from business, government and health gathered in New York for Event 201, an eerily timed exercise that asked participants to imagine how the world as it stood then would cope with a coronavirus pandemic.

Not well, as it turned out.

The imaginary virus conjured up for Event 201 — CAPS, or Coronavirus Acute Pulmonary Syndrome — killed 65 million people in its first 18 months as it surged through poorer neighbourhoods in large cities and misinformation frustrated attempts to stop the spread. The fictional wounds to global economies, financial markets, social cohesion and faith in government and media were expected to take years to heal.

At the end of the exercise, the organisers — The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, World Economic Forum, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — issued recommendations to bridge gaps in pandemic readiness, unaware that a real-life version of their imagined crisis lay months away.

It’s not too early to draw lessons from COVID-19.

The genuine virus, thankfully, has proven far less deadly, but COVID-19 has nonetheless inflicted untold damage across the world.

It has killed roughly 1.4 million people so far and left tens of millions more with lasting health problems. Unemployment has soared, and businesses have failed. Attempts by companies and governments to cushion the economic blow have triggered what the Institute of International Finance this week called a “debt tsunami.”

With scores of countries in the throes of a second wave of infection, it may seem premature to ask whether the lessons of this pandemic will help us do better next time.

It is not too early.

Promising results from vaccine trials by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have raised hopes that, for much of the world, normal life may lie on the horizon.

But if normal life means large-scale resumption of activities such as land use change, encroachment on habitats and wildlife trade that have led to a rise in zoonotic, or animal-born, disease transmission, then future pandemics are inevitable.

“The convergence of climate change and deforestation, population density, population movement is driving a new wave of emergency events,” the World Health Organization said in response to questions from News Decoder. “Climate change and urbanization will most likely increase the frequency and intensity of outbreaks.”

The world needs a coordinated plan.

Whether these outbreaks to come exact a greater or lesser economic and human toll than COVID-19 depends on the steps the world takes in the next few months and years.

“A coordinated plan to address the next pandemic is desperately needed,” wrote Dr. Matthew Laurens, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a principal investigator for the Moderna vaccine trials being conducted by the university, in answer to emailed questions.

Laurens said the first step is to shore up defences. To ensure diseases are caught and contained before they spread, global governments must make a long-term and adequately funded commitment to improve hotspot surveillance and to share information freely. Such sentinel surveillance programs must also include support for low- and middle-income countries to enable them to spot outbreaks and to diagnose, treat and contain infected patients.

During COVID-19, the tracking of outbreaks and the tracing of exposed individuals have been “suboptimal” in many countries, Laurens said, as have been the campaigns to educate the public on risks and safety measures. All are in urgent need of improvement.

In some countries, such as the United States and Brazil, incorrect or muddled information flowed not just from social media but from the top ranks of government, which has led to confusion, anger and poor compliance. Laurens said that education “of all levels of government and society on the importance of science and its relation to human livelihood is desperately needed.”

Dr. Freya Jephcott, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge’s infectious disease research centre, said overly rosy forecasts from government can foster frustration.

“The other lesson that places like the UK and the U.S. — and other countries that don’t regularly encounter large outbreaks — probably need to internalise is to have realistic timelines when it comes to managing outbreaks, and to keep magical thinking in general in check,” she said.

“Statements like, ‘The outbreak will be over by Easter/July/Christmas,’ undermine people’s trust and their ability to effectively plan and set themselves up for the duration of the outbreak.”

Nations must repair social safety nets.

Frustrated at the rampant spread of false or misguided information, the WHO staged a multi-pronged campaign that involved setting up apps, creating chatbots and working with social media programs to deal with the spread and flag COVID-19 posts for users.

The pandemic has taught the world some hard lessons about the consequences of healthcare disparities between rich and the poor that will prove valuable if governments heed them, Laurens said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the consequences of chronic under-investment in public health,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week at a meeting of the World Health Assembly.

To deal with this, Ghebreyesus said, the WHO has established a new council of economists and health experts to explore ways to put healthcare at the centre of economic planning.

Jephcott agreed that society must repair safety nets if it is to cope with future health crises.

“I would say to ensure the next pandemic is not as disruptive as this one, we will need people across the world to have ready access to good health care, well-resourced local public health officials, safe housing and robust social support systems,” she said.

In a reflection of the depth of global concern, the WHO’s 194 member states this week adopted a resolution to strengthen preparedness for health emergencies such as COVID-19 through full compliance with global health regulations, the WHO said.

There have been success stories.

The COVID-19 response has its success stories as well, many of which should help with future outbreaks. Chief among these has been the record-fast pace of vaccine development and the proactive establishment of manufacturing, both made possible because companies worked in lockstep with government and academia.

“We have learned how to quickly establish public-private partnerships to advance scientific development of vaccines and therapeutics,” Laurens said.

“We can benchmark on these experiences and be ready for future needs. Manufacturing facilities may need to be readied and put into hibernation mode in preparation for the next outbreak/pandemic. We will also be ready with standardized protocols and processes to test promising candidate vaccines and therapeutics in humans.”

The research into vaccines and treatments was helped by global databases and platforms that allowed scientists to compile and share real-time genetic data, to test results and to collaborate across vast distances.

We need a different relationship with nature.

Still, research suggests that the most important step humanity can take to protect itself from future outbreaks is to repair its relationship with nature.

A recent study argued that spending between $17.7 billion and $26.9 billion a year to discourage deforestation, curb the wildlife trade and set up surveillance in high-risk areas for infectious disease would dramatically cut the risk of future pandemics.

If you think that price tag is too high, remember it is dwarfed by the estimated $28 trillion in global economic output that has been destroyed by just one.

Questions to consider:

  1. What steps would you like to see your government take in the next few years to better prepare for future pandemics?
  2. Has the information you have received about the outbreak and protective measures been clear or confusing? What impact has social media traffic had on your understanding of COVID-19?
  3. What measures do you believe would ensure better public compliance with safety measures?
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Sarah Edmonds is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in seven countries on three continents, variously as a financial markets and economics correspondent, news editor, bureau chief and news operations manager.

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Educators' CatalogWill the world learn the right lessons from COVID-19?