COVID-19: Government Should Prepare for the Next Pandemic
Posted On April 13, 2020
COVID-19 is on a rampage! Like a wrecking ball it is smashing lives and ravaging economies. It has battered stock markets sending them into wild gyrations. It has lacerated ind ustries and shuttered businesses. It has since infected over 1.5 million people and resulted in over 90,000 deaths across the world.
Unemployment will hit close to 200 million by the time the contagion fizzles out. The scale of destruction has never before been seen since a century ago. Then, the 1918 Spanish flu infected about 500 million, or one-third of the world’s population. It killed one-tenth of those infected.
The current outbreak is a wake-up call for any government to be ready to combat future crises. In 2005, George W. Bush, the then US president, in his prescience argued: “If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare. And one day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today.”
Here are three strategies for the government to better prepare for future crises.
FIRST, the pandemic has exposed the glaring need to better resource health services. It calls into question the government’s priorities in resource allocation — the ‘guns or butter’ issue. Compared to the hefty spending on health by rich nations — the US spends US$10,000 per capita or 10 times more than us on health — our health allocation is only about 4.0 per cent of GDP (18 per cent in the US).
This is one-third of the amounts spent by rich EU states.
Health funding should build slack in the system. This will prevent a healthcare meltdown should another pandemic strike. It will also ameliorate the long waiting time at hospitals, while making doubly sure that our food and safety, water supply and sanitation standards conform to the most stringent international requirements.
Additionally, funding should go to setting up a dedicated centre for disease control and prevention. The centre’s purpose will be to help the government anticipate future contagions. The centre should carry out biological research on potentially harmful pathogens and on possible vaccines to destroy them. It should also draft a comprehensive health-surveillance system using digital technology.
China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore are exceptionally adept at using digital technology in monitoring the coronavirus transmission.
SECOND, to help in surveillance, big data analytics coupled with artificial intelligence should be employed to predict the onset and spread of a viral outbreak. Analysing data on infection rates can also tell us which groups will be affected, the extent of herd immunity and the next wave of infections.
All this information will give the government a better handle on the outbreak’s impact on health facilities. Modelling using data can make the government better prepared as to when to impose or lift a lockdown, institute travel bans, close the border and intensify contact-tracing. Data analysis will therefore, give the government a quicker and richer picture of the evolving reality. It will enable the government to make evidence-based decisions to counter the threat.
THIRD, based on the current experience, the government should draft a comprehensive and detailed pandemic plan. The plan should be replete with policies and legislation on how to manage, if not prevent, a crisis.
The standard operating procedures will relate to issues regarding social distancing, mass gatherings, screening, declaration of health emergency, lockdowns and quarantine procedures.
Such policies will surely resonate with the public given what they are going through now. It will give them a sense of certainty and confidence that in any eventuality the government will be in control. The government, too, would be on a surer footing if another disaster strikes.
Another pandemic of the scale of Covid-19 may not happen during our lifetime. But successive governments must have the will to be prepared. As Bush then argued: “A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire. If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smoulder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.”