As difficult as responding to COVID-19 has been, what steps are taken after the pandemic ends will be an even greater test of character for governments, Vernon White writes.
The COVID-19 pandemic may be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Not because there have not been pandemics recently, or because there will be no more in future, but because the COVID-19 pandemic will leave no place, no culture, or community unaffected. Every country will have cases, and likely multiple deaths.
Not unlike other pandemics, SARS is an example, COVID-19 is believed to have begun as an animal virus that became human-hosted, and was then passed from human to human. SARS was also identified as having the ability to transmit very quickly. Every infected person would transmit to 2.75 people if left alone to do so.
Understanding the rate of transmission is important if people hope to slow the spread of a disease. In the case of SARS, transmission rate was reduced with quarantine, isolation, tracking, and stringent control systems. Once the rate of transmission was reduced below one, the system took over and a countries health care would manage the pandemic.
In the case of COVID-19, transmission rates have been identified as those with the virus infecting up to 3.5 people per person, very similar to that of SARS. There are however some glaring differences between the two, including that experts have stated that between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of COVID-19 infected patients are exhibiting no symptoms, and may not even realise they are infected.
This is very different to SARS, which always showed symptoms. This means that COVID-19 presents the unique challenge of being passed on by ‘silent spreaders’, infected people who had not shown symptoms, and in some cases, may never show symptoms, making emulating the successful response to SARS almost impossible.
Understanding this is helpful to buy-in to the need for complete social distancing and at times self-isolation. Without those actions and immediate commitment, governments cannot hope to gain ground on COVID-19.
Looking beyond the virus, policymakers should look to whether government pandemic responses have improved enough. After the SARS and H1N1 outbreaks, many governments set out to prepare for a better response going forward.
Whether it was a ‘hot wash’ of responses to earlier pandemics or an outright development of a Management Plan for a Pandemic, as in Australia’s case, the importance of planning ahead was not lost on governments.
As governments developed their plans for the next pandemic, they hopefully considered what had occurred previously, and what they were hearing from experts in the field. Importantly, while experts were saying that the next pandemic could be similar to those previous, they also emphasised that it could be nothing like them.
Pandemic specialists try to prepare governments by first being clear. It is often said in the pandemic response world that ‘if you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic’. While you can prepare for a pandemic with the best information possible, a pandemic will always bring unexpected challenges that will require a response to be formulated on the fly.
What governments do after COVID-19 is paramount for the safety, security, and livelihood of citizens into the future. This is not only true for how governments plan to get their countries to rebound from the health and economic fall-out of the pandemic. After the crisis passes, governments must also be building their ability to manage the next pandemic.
Governments have broadly acted quickly to tackle this virus. Policymakers have been developing and implementing new protocols and plans to decrease transmission risk. These have included strict movement restrictions and social distancing, improvements surrounding access to medical equipment by healthcare professionals, and implementing economic stimulus to assist business and individuals.
This is to decrease the spread of COVID-19, thereby giving the healthcare system the ability to manage illnesses as they occur and reach manageable transmission rates. The healthcare improvements include safety of healthcare professionals through personal protective equipment, and access to the medical equipment like ventilators. They have also spent billions of dollars in legislation meant to carry those in need through the worst of the pandemic’s financial impact.
However, after the crisis passes, a new test will begin. How can a country learn from its experience, from its mistakes, and, importantly any successes, and how can Australia?
A recent report by FM Global, an organisation that looks at the resilience of a country to ‘bounce back’ from a financial crisis, has Australia resting in the 17th spot. The top eight countries, found in northern Europe, will be interesting to watch, as many have been very hard hit by COVID-19, and may provide lessons for other nations in their responses.
In considering a future pandemic, preparedness will be an important ingredient for future thinking. A challenge with previous pandemics is that although deadly they were more of an inconvenience than a disaster, and countries could and did respond quickly.
Both were easily tracked, had few silent spreaders and an early response was a reality, unlike COVID-19. The future of pandemic planning must involve learning from the current crises and ensuring resilience is built into the system.
That resilience comes learning from the past and preparing for the future, while remembering that key mantra, ‘if you have seen one pandemic, you have seen one pandemic’.
In that plan, policymakers must be prepared to be even more responsive to the shutting down of borders and shuttering of communities than they were this time.
Although most governments took necessary action in responding to COVID-19, few did so as soon as they could, and waiting for perfection is a fool’s game, especially when it comes to pandemics. Although all countries will judge and be judged by the way they handled this pandemic, they must be judged even more harshly for the way they prepare the next one, and whether they have learned anything from this time.