Preparing for a New Pandemic

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

June 3, 2021

COVID-19 illustrated why global cooperation is key to find solutions to global problems. It also highlighted gaps in our digital data sharing. Lessons have hopefully been learnt, especially geopolitical ones. Are we ready for a new pandemic of any sort? How might we better prepare for such shocks in the future?

Horasis is organizing the Horasis Global Meeting on 08 June 2021 to discuss such concerns. The one-day virtual event will see participation from diverse backgrounds, spanning members of governments, businesses, academia, and the media. The goal is to deliberate on pressing issues affecting worldwide populations and collectively arrive at solutions that can ensure prosperity for all.

Disharmony With Nature Must Cease

A recent UNESCAP report highlights that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease – meaning it is one that is transmitted from animals to humans. In simple terms, this occurred due to direct or indirect human contact with animals’. COVID-19 aside, human-animal conflicts have risen in recent years, largely driven by humankind’s quest for more.

Expanding urban spaces are encroaching on animal habitats. With this trend continuing unabated, there will be complete annihilation of certain species (if not already). Natural ecosystems are, meanwhile, threatened and Asia-Pacific—home to many emerging economies—has a dismal score in the biodiversity intactness index. In fact, 60 percent of the region’s mangrove forests have been cleared. In terms of marine life, 40 percent of coral reefs have been destroyed.

Have We Learnt from the Past?

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first or the last the world will witness. There have been past episodes, ones that were even more devastating in terms of lives lost. The 1918 Spanish Flu, for instance, recorded an estimated 50 million fatalities worldwide. More recently, there have been comparatively smaller outbreaks such as the SARS epidemic in 2002 and a deadly Ebola strike in 2014.

However, Albert Camus’ words from his 1947 novel ring loud and clear: “There have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.” And even in 2020, despite the seeming leaps made on most fronts, the world was caught off-guard.

Governments and healthcare systems were overwhelmed and crucial supplies ran out in no time. But what can definitely be considered a massive advancement is the speed with which vaccines were developed in 2020. And this was entirely possible due to collaboration across geographical borders.

Collaboration is Central to Pandemic Preparedness

The World Health Organization also recognizes that alliances and data sharing are crucial to minimizing the risks that stem from pandemic outbreaks. It therefore, led the formation of  FluID a worldwide data sharing platform. This initiative was primarily for sharing and collating of influenza epidemiological data into one common platform. This helps link existing databases. It also serves as a complementary element to FluNet, a tool that collects virological data.

Trends can, subsequently, be identified across the globe while determining other key metrics such as spread, intensity, and impact of the virus. More importantly, this critical information is available complimentary for healthcare policymakers. Since the possibility of an influenza-like future pandemic is high, a tool such as FluID could be critical in helping make informed decisions.

Assuming Preventive Steps are More Crucial

Many countries are taking steps towards ensuring resiliency and preparedness for future pandemics. However, there are also many that simply do not have the ability or capacity to do so. Past evidence and the present scenario offer important lessons. Even then, adequate responses will not be taken in all cases. Some governments may fail to arrive at a consensus on account of diverse ministries being unable to align their goals. 

Furthermore, there is also the lack of political will in certain cases. For example, at the pandemic’s onset in 2020, countries that were among the first to be severely affected had already demonstrated that lockdowns were an effective means to arrest the virus’ spread. Yet, several leaders chose to oppose this strategy and continued their economic pursuits. For some, economic growth is all important, and often while employing unsustainable practices that involve large scale deforestation, unplanned urbanization, and unchecked pollution. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call. It highlights the urgent need for steps that will establish a less conflicting relationship between humans, and the environments they live in. Economic gains alone cannot form the only basis of what human progress implies. Instead, there is pressing need for governments, businesses, and individuals to become more conscious in the choices they make.

More importantly, global leaders must collaborate to arrive at possible preventive measures to avert another such catastrophe. It is time to cast aside short-sighted ideals that only benefit a handful; rather the world demands solutions that are based on a whole-of-society approach.

Photo: People wearing masks in Rome, Italy. Global cooperation is must to sustain another pandemic of this nature.