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Preparing for the world’s next pandemic: lessons learned in 2020

Even as the world is reeling from the effects of COVID-19, the World Health Organization has urged world leaders to prepare for the next pandemic, by building up prevention capacities to contain the next outbreak of a novel (or existing) disease. Even before coronavirus, health experts and epidemiologists had issued warnings to governments about the lack of preparedness for an epidemic. The United States, which lost over 500,000 lives due to the coronavirus, had partially disbanded the pandemic response team in 2018 and like many nations, did not take decisive actions early on to combat the virus’ spread. As there seems to be a promising end to the COVID-19 pandemic with the introduction of vaccinations, governments should use this time to review their strategies and implement effective action plans for future epidemics.

 

Need for Transparency and Information Sharing

The origins of COVID-19 are yet unclear, and there were initial reports of local Chinese authorities suppressing the possibility of a novel disease. Even as the virus began to spread, governments across the world were accused of hedging infection numbers and limiting people’s access to information that was necessary to understand the virus. Even in the scientific community, there were allegations of inadequate or improper information sharing which could be crucial in combating the virus. In India, experts have raised concerns about the lack of proper publishing of the trials for the Indian indigenous vaccine, even as the government continues to refuse to publish such scientific data. Data sharing is considered to be an ethical and moral obligation in the scientific sphere. Transparency and information sharing is of crucial importance, particularly in an emergency situation, such as a worldwide pandemic. Therefore, authorities across jurisdictions must ensure that timely reporting of any potential outbreak, adequate information sharing and transparency is maintained in the future.

 

Building Healthcare Infrastructure

At the initial stage of the pandemic, the world witnessed first-hand, the collapse of Chinese and Italian healthcare due to an overwhelming number of patients. The impact of coronavirus was felt in areas where healthcare infrastructure, particularly public infrastructure, was already weak or ill-equipped. Further, countries faced shortages of equipment such as PPE, ventilators, etc., due to a lack of preparedness. Healthcare providers in many countries are burned out due to the shortage in their numbers as well as the lack of adequate government protection during the crisis. Thus, governments must focus on building their healthcare, reviewing policies, and placing focus on healthcare innovation.

 

International Collaboration and Coordination

The pandemic saw nations shutting off borders (which was arguably a necessary measure) but also shutting off effective communication with other countries. Governments were quick to place political blame and use the pandemic to increase tensions amongst other nations. The United States’ decision to leave the World Health Organization sent the world a signal of its unwillingness to collaborate on a global level. Its re-entry into the WHO, although a relief, is just the start of the series of steps needed for countries to come together and prepare for the next pandemic. If we can discern anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that no virus respects borders, and therefore, countries must mirror this in their efforts to combat diseases.

 

Inclusive Approach

The effects of the pandemic are not felt equally across borders. The virus has wreaked havoc particularly on vulnerable and already exploited communities. In India, slums were the primary source of concern for infection, given the lack of hygiene and close quarters that made it impossible to enforce social distancing norms. Low-income communities faced the brunt of casualties given the absence of access to healthcare. Further, developing nations are still struggling with the virus and have not even been able to gain proper access to vaccines. The pandemic has also had a staggering effect on the global economy, and governments have been criticized for not providing adequate economic relief, leading to a stagnation in economic activities.

Thus, governments must realize that the next pandemic may have a debilitating effect on their citizens and prepare early-stage strategies to prevent disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities, and align their economic plans with goals that account for epidemics and outbreaks.

 

Increased Emphasis on Scientific Innovation

Epidemiologists had been warning policy-makers of the possibility of a pandemic for years before 2020, however, there simply was not enough initiative shown to invest in researching prevention and mitigation strategies. Going forward, countries must acknowledge the importance of scientific research in preventing outbreaks and make adequate investments, even if it includes adopting a public-private model, to ensure that they act on best scientific evidence. R&D must therefore be accorded greater weight in government policies and strategies.

Countries must also ensure that their policies in mitigating outbreaks are backed by scientific research. The coronavirus pandemic was greatly exacerbated due to the lack of reliance on science, even as government leaders propagated ideas that had no scientific basis whatsoever. The future response must be centred around science and available information. The mistakes made in 2020 cannot be repeated. It is an accepted fact that there will be new pathogens and viruses that emerge, but it is our governments’ duty to prevent it from becoming a global pandemic. This is only possible by making plans even though there exists no tangible threat in the present moment, acting quickly and on the advice of scientific experts.