Unprepared for a pandemic

Sample testing devices used in diagnosing the COVID-19 novel coronavirus are checked on a production line at the SD Biosensor bio-diagnostic company near Cheongju, south of Seoul on 27 March, 2020. (AFP Photo)

Last fall, 16 leaders from governments, businesses and international organisations gathered in New York to conduct a simulated response to a hypothetical global health emergency. We looked at the challenges that could arise in such a scenario, which was increasingly likely given the world has about 200 epidemic events per year. We could not know the exercise would become a reality just months later – but the conclusion was sobering: if it did, the global community was woefully unprepared. 

A few months later, the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in China. By the end of January, more than 500 people had been infected, and Wuhan, the origin of the outbreak, had been placed under quarantine. Now, COVID-19 has spread internationally and affected more than 90,000 people, leading to more than 3,000 deaths. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expects it will also cause significant economic damage: global economic growth could slow to 1.5 percent, putting the world in a technical recession.

We couldn’t have predicted this specific outbreak. But something similar was bound to happen, and if you had asked us during the exercise in New York: “Are we ready for a global health emergency?”, we would have said “no.” The simulation and our previous work had shown there was a lot more to be done to enable public-private cooperation in face of such a threat. But there is a silver lining: it’s not too late to apply the lessons we learned in the fall. What can we do to mobilise a better global response? 

First, we must look beyond the immediate health impact of the COVID-19 virus and come up with a systemic response. Our research and analysis have shown that global health threats pose a significant international risk and the costs of epidemics are rising. Nothing is more important than protecting and saving lives. But we must also consider the economic and social consequences of outbreaks. 

COVID-19 has illustrated again that outbreaks can affect supply chains, industries, companies, travel systems, workforces and more. The economic fallout of the virus has been felt worldwide, and the overall socio-economic impacts are still being realised.  We have prioritised systems to respond to health threats, but we haven’t given nearly enough thought to managing the effects on people’s livelihoods. Now is the time to change that. 

Consider how fire departments have evolved over time. 200 years ago, fire departments in the United Kingdom (UK) focused just on responding to the fires themselves. Until someone finally said: It’s not enough to just put the fire out; you must do so in a way that supports the people most affected and the impact on their community. Similarly, we must respond to global health threats in a systematic way that addresses the related economic and social disruptions. 

Second, we must act on the facts, not on fear. The simulation also showed the importance of elevating facts and empowering people to make evidence-based decisions. As a global community, we know the “infodemic” spreads even faster than the virus itself. But we haven’t done enough to cultivate an environment for business leaders, health ministers, politicians, or the general public to access the truth and act on it. 

Right now, fear is still winning the day, and “false news” is spreading faster than official World Health Organisation (WHO) and authorities’ information. Many people are continuing to make the most risk-averse, and often unsubstantiated, decisions – hoard face masks, close borders, racially stigmatise Asians, for example. It leads to a race to the bottom. We must instead make it easier for people to access reliable info and feel confident in making decisions about their organisations and themselves. 

Minimise spread of covid19
Source: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

The WHO set the tone with its daily press briefings, and its accessible website with information for citizens, companies and governments. Since this week, it even opened a TikTok channel. Media such as Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, The Local in Europe, and The Seattle Times in the United States (US) are following its lead, opening their coverage for all and basing it on solid research, not online rumours. It’s a laudable response, that deserves to be replicated elsewhere. 

Third, we must engage decision-makers in the private sector. Governments mostly focus their communication directly to the general public. But the private sector and its leadership are a crucial piece of the puzzle as well. First, they can help share information, employing well over half the workforce in many economies. Second, they can help limit economic consequences, if they’re properly informed and kept abreast by the health and public authorities. 

Companies know they can’t afford to put their heads down and hope they get it right by themselves. But they have been largely left out of crisis responses in the past, even though they are critical: For example, the effort to ensure all health care workers in the world have enough supplies requires a coordinated approach. The same is true for navigating travel and workplace policies. These challenges can’t be overcome without trust, information-sharing and engaged decision-makers. 

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is doing its part. In response to COVID-19, it is calling for interaction among chief executives, the WHO and other top experts. The goal is to ensure that companies have continuous access to trusted information and analysis to make decisions, and that private-sector assets and capabilities are mobilised to support the global response. 

Finally, we must all come together to collaborate. It’s en vogue these days to ask what the point is of international institutions, or strong public response systems. This virus makes that clear: in a global health emergency, all of us are only as strong as our weakest link, whether we represent a company or an economy or a health system. COVID-19 presents a true test to see how we can come together collectively to mitigate risk and disruption in this new environment.  

Many of us tend to believe that outbreaks happen in some other place, and it’s the work of others to keep them there. Not this one. COVID-19 is the whole world’s problem and the most serious threat to global health security in decades. If we don’t come together to ensure that the whole world is protected, we’ll never be protected ourselves. Together, as an informed, equipped, international community, we have an opportunity to make a difference

We can’t afford to act alone. But if we do act together, the impact of this crisis on health, as well as social and economic life, can be mitigated, and we can become more resilient to respond to future risks. 

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Borge Brende is the President of the World Economic Forum and Ryan Morhard leads the World Economic Forum’s Global Health Security activities.