Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic: Be Prepared

Carmen Espinosa

February 02, 2022

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of outbreaks and epidemics that involve emerging and re-emerging diseases. Some of these even had the potential to become pandemics, such as Ebola, MERS, SARS, Zika, Chikungunya, Nipah, and bird flus. And yet, when a pandemic did show up, the world discovered that it was not prepared to deal with it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the lack of investment in preparedness and response measures against outbreaks of infectious disease. Outbreaks have not only put a strain on public health systems, they have also shown how quickly social stability and economic well-being can be undermined.

But where did we go wrong, and how? A policy paper that reviews the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, so that we can be prepared for the next health crisis, was recently issued by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal).

Among the shortcomings the pandemic uncovered are "the lack of integrated monitoring, prediction, and early-alert systems for public health authorities to use when making decisions," and issues related to "communicating risks, with contradictory messages sometimes causing confusion among the general public and a mistrust of health authorities," said Elizabeth Diago-Navarro, PhD, a researcher at ISGlobal, who helped write the policy paper.

Other serious issues — the infodemic of misinformation and inequalities among countries and even among regions within a country — exacerbate the impact of the crisis and "global, regional, and local governance issues that have prevented appropriate coordination of the response to this health crisis," she told Univadis Spain.

Being prepared can help us minimize health, economic, and social effects when the next crisis comes.

Key measures are needed to prepare for the next public health or environmental crisis before it arrives, including investment in science and innovative response strategies and the strengthening of frameworks for the coordination of response for all actors, be they health authorities or scientific institutions. "But the general public also has to be involved so that they'll know what their role will be in the response and they'll be aware of the action plans and policies," said Diago-Navarro.

The concept of preparedness, response, recovery, and resilience — or PR3, as ISGlobal calls it —— combines different phases of preparation and response to crises. "We're calling on the authorities to take note of what we're all learning from the pandemic and to start working on these preparedness frameworks. And the sooner, the better. Being prepared can help us minimize health, economic, and social effects when the next crisis comes. We must also reach out to the general public, letting them know how important it is that they participate in these efforts," she explained.

"It will be much more beneficial to invest in prevention and preparedness than not to, but we must take these steps immediately. We cannot allow ourselves to forget how the pandemic has affected our lives. The reality is that the more time that passes, the more difficult it will be to get to work on this task. And that's a risk that we just can't take," she added.

For its part, the World Health Organization (WHO), through an intergovernmental negotiating body, is working on an international treaty on pandemics that will strengthen global prevention, preparedness, and response for future pandemics. The goal is to have the treaty adopted by 2024.

"The hope is that the treaty will address equity in the measures that are adopted in terms of prevention, preparedness, and response to health crises so that there can be a global response; will follow the One Health guidelines and take into account the connection between the health of humans, animals, and our planet; will establish global action and coordination frameworks aimed at prevention, early evaluation of risks, detection, and response; will require member states to comply with International Health Regulations, whether through targeted revisions to the 2005 edition, which was created in response to the 2002 to 2004 SARS epidemic, or through an entirely new instrument; will provide funding so that the WHO can work in a timely manner on this issue; will fight for universal healthcare coverage and the strengthening of health systems; will share data on pathogens; will reinforce governance of the authorities and social organizations that respond to crises; and, finally, will combat false and misleading information," Diago-Navarro explained.

Are These Goals Achievable?

But is it realistic to expect that governments from different countries will come to an agreement on the management of pandemics when it has proven so difficult to get an agreement for fighting climate change? "I truly hope that an international collaboration and coordination agreement can be reached," said Diago-Navarro. "The devastating social, health, and economic effects have known no borders, have known no nationalities. This fact should galvanize politicians into action, starting with strategies for managing the effects of a future health crisis." There are various global, regional, and local initiatives currently underway, and we will just have to wait and see how they play out.

"Humans are increasingly being exposed to new microorganisms as a direct result of climate change, deforestation, pollution, greater interaction with wildlife, incursions into natural areas, and fragmentation of habitats. If we want to prevent a future pandemic, it's imperative that governments address the dangers that these activities pose," Diago-Navarro said. To do this, "we must invest in epidemiologic intelligence systems that integrate data on human and animal health from a variety of sources. We also have to foster research and development into platforms for diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines that are easily adaptable to distinct infectious diseases. In this way, we can prepare ourselves for disease X, which could cause a new pandemic."

To fight the spread of false or misleading information, ISGlobal takes the view that efforts should be made to communicate what is known, and what is not known, about health threats. "Health authorities and other actors need to partner with risk communication experts and behavioral scientists to develop awareness campaigns and to educate the public about control measures," Diago-Navarro said. To overcome the challenge of getting younger generations to follow guidelines, she advises that we encourage critical thinking. Using online platforms that cater to young people, as well as engaging social media influencers, can be part of the strategy.

"The way that risk is communicated has to be adapted to each target audience," she noted. "We need to implement whichever strategies the experts recommend to ensure that the general public and the politicians have access to the real-time, evidence-based scientific data that will allow them to make the most appropriate and most informed decisions."

At the end of the day, "we have to ensure that everyone understands that the way to be prepared for future crises involves increasing investments in science and technology, strengthening health systems, and creating monitoring and early-action frameworks that will allow us to stay one step ahead of whatever may come," said Diago-Navarro. "Applying ISGlobal's proposed PR3 concept can substantially mitigate the effects on the economy and on people's well-being."

This article originally appeared in Univadis Spain.

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