Our globalized world evolves and changes faster than we expected. In the past century, we have faced numerous epidemics ranging from the Spanish flu to Ebola. Despite the frequent occurrences, we are still ill-prepared and unequipped with the necessary resources and procedures to effectively deal with it. To contain global epidemics, the core measure is to focus on planning and preparation in political, technological and educational aspects. Benjamin Franklin’s timeless wisdom is that “failing to plan is planning to fail” and doing so will ensure faster response time and better implementation of preventive measures. By establishing collective and immediate preparedness, it will improve our ability to tackle emerging outbreaks and not to be caught by surprise.
At the national level, relations between governments and citizens are essential to the pre-emptive fight against a pandemic. Governments should increase transparency and release information as soon as a situation starts developing, allowing the public enough time to respond to the situation accordingly. In addition to strengthening domestic dynamics, diplomatically countries should make maintaining a flow of material and informational exchange the top priority. This could drastically shorten the time needed to attain necessary medical equipment, and prevent situations such as the shortage of testing supplies as experienced by America due to errors in the initial testing kits from happening (Business Insider). Stricter border control must also be implemented during precarious and uncertain times of an outbreak. This includes monitoring and restricting movements of citizens and foreigners both in and out of the country, particularly concerning countries already affected by the disease. To expedite the process, a traveler’s recent health records should be made accessible digitally by the destination countries. This could be done by an international organization such as WHO, or by e-platforms for the sharing of information between governments. Having a system that closely monitors an individual’s health could greatly decrease the chances of imported foreign health threats and reduce panic among citizens.
Operationally speaking, there are still some limitations to this approach: many countries may avoid imposing travel restrictions straight away in fear of causing colossal economic damage. But the cost is modest compared with the potential harm. If the situation is not dealt with straight away, a greater human cost will incur as a result. Monitoring and quarantine can be challenging as there could be an incubation period. People might try to evade them as part of our human nature — we don’t want to be separated, and could conceal real information that complicates the situation.
Besides governmental and diplomatic responses, part of the solution to forestalling global pandemics is technological preparedness for our health system, which means a complete revamp aiming to limit the explosive damage of pandemics. This coronavirus is a case in point that unveils the fundamental weaknesses of the system: in a developing country like Chad, with an excessively low doctor-to-patient ratio of 3.7:100,000 (WHO), how could the medical system respond to a health crisis like this? Italy is another stunning case that its health system just failed to work to suppress the pandemic. This weakest link should be addressed by enhancing the capacity of health facilities and strengthening the number of trained medical health care providers as well as our global health supply chains in medical reserves (including medicine and protective equipment) and warehouse management. It is a coordinated effort by both government and businesses to guide medical manufacturers to produce more. With that, pandemics like coronavirus could be effectively contained by using the right tools to minimize the number of people who get infected. That is a technological solution we should never underestimate.
Though medical cures are the ultimate solution, the best way to fight an outbreak is simply to prevent the infection in the first place as developing new drugs can take years of testing. That involves raising individual awareness and encouraging the practice of good hygiene such as quarantining, social distancing and handwashing to mitigate the spread of diseases. The speed of adopting these steps is a crucial factor, as “studies of previous epidemics have shown that the longer officials waited to encourage people to distance and protect themselves, the less useful those measures were in saving lives and preventing infections”(NYTimes). By simply doing our part, we are protecting ourselves and the people around us, significantly decreasing the potential impact. Information-wise, in order to raise public awareness, the government or trusted organizations such as WHO should set up comprehensive multimedia platforms in different languages containing real-time and accurate information as well as advice as a way to offer assurance and decrease uncertainty.
Alarmingly, all preventive efforts can be greatly undermined by the spread of misinformation. In times of such a high degree of fear and uncertainty, people are exposed and highly susceptible to fabricated news that could harm them. On social media platforms like Whatsapp, there is a proliferation of misleading information. Messages such as the coronavirus originated from a lab were shared rapidly from family to friends, a popular conspiracy that surfaced on social media. Another false claim that is circulating is that drinking warm water every 15 minutes will neutralize the virus (CNN). False information can incite more panic and confusion, impeding preventative measures. Some may even cause xenophobic remarks and actions, endangering certain communities. With the likely circulation of misinformation, it is even more paramount that there is public education about the situation and how to judge the accuracy and reliability of information.
With the continual surge of globalization and international interdependence, outbreaks are inevitable. Policymakers and various stakeholders are in a prime position to craft effective politico-diplomatic, technological and educational strategies to change the global and social landscapes so that we are more adequately prepared for the next sweep of pandemics, if not eliminating them at all. Conservationists argue that the coronavirus is a warning sign for us to rethink our relationship with Mother Nature, but a more imminent question will still be: what human efforts can be made to prevent the next outbreak?