Pandemics are rare strikes, however their mighty blows wreak havoc across the globe. Our world is not new to viral outbreaks and history is testament to a number of virulent and deadly ones. The past century has witnessed a number of viral outbreaks, such as the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 and the Asian Flu Pandemic of 1957-1958.
The 2014-2016 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa was the largest outbreak since the virus was first identified in 1976. Its average case fatality is around 50% and at the time, West African countries were ill-prepared to deal with this unfamiliar illness.
Several factors have contributed to its spread, such as weak alert systems, inexperienced health care workers in handling such an illness, and lack of infection control measures. The disease spread widely across populations, causing economic and social disruptions, until it was finally quelled.
By then, a total of 28,616 people were infected and 11,310 deaths were reported in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, in addition to a combined loss of $2.8 billion in their GDP and billions of dollars in global response efforts.
The present Covid-19 pandemic has been ravaging for over a year and what has differentiated countries’ resilient responses to its precarious effects is their investment in health security measures. In recent years, many governments have invested in health security to protect their countries from biological threats.
The government of Singapore established the National Centre for Infectious Diseases in 2019 to bolster its capabilities in preventing and managing infectious diseases through detection systems, medical staff training, epidemiological research, and response strategies.
Similarly, the government of South Korea has pioneered successful digital health technologies that enable it to monitor the spread of infectious diseases and intervene with public health measures to contain it. For example, to combat the transmission of the Covid-19 virus, its detailed epidemiological data dashboard tracks coronavirus patients, identifies hot spots in different geographies, and alerts citizens on their mobile phones.
Mitigating epidemics and pandemics
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative worked with a number of global experts to come up with a set of measures that evaluates a country’s ability to prevent and mitigate epidemics and pandemics.
Health security looks into a country’s ability to prevent the emergence of outbreaks, early detection of health incidents of international concern, rapid responses that mitigate the transmission of diseases, sufficient and competent health care facilities with trained health care professionals, compliance with international health standards, and vulnerability to biological threats.
The 2019 Global Health Security Index report assessed 195 countries in health security capability and reveals that no country is fully equipped to face epidemics or pandemics, with many areas of improvement within their public health systems.
Only 7% of countries scored highly in their ability to prevent pandemics from emerging, whilst 20% scored well in monitoring, detecting, and reporting emerging outbreaks. Also, the report reveals that fewer than 5% of countries have resilient public health systems to respond rapidly to outbreaks or mitigate its transmission.
The Global Health Security Index also ranks Arab states within this framework, with Saudi Arabia leading the region in its capability, followed by the UAE, and Kuwait. On the other hand, many other Arab states were considered less prepared and there are many areas of improvement for them to properly manage outbreaks.
It is imperative that governments have dedicated agencies in charge of monitoring and managing infectious diseases, in addition to training health care staff on infectious disease control measures, conducting important epidemiological research, and pioneering digital health technologies, vaccinations, and treatments.
A full-fledged outbreak management plan
At the heart of the public service, a multifunctional and competent team of physicians, nurses, epidemiologists, public health officials, laboratory staff, community health workers, and social workers need to work coherently together to deliver a full-fledged outbreak management plan.
Furthermore, health care facilities need to be fully equipped, with sufficient capacities to handle an influx of patients and strict infection control practices in place. Medical professionals need to be trained on treating patients with infectious diseases, especially during stressful periods like epidemics or pandemics, and reduce transmission rates within their facilities.
Public health policies will be critical in managing transmission among the community by raising awareness on prevention, quarantine, and treatment options. It is vital that universal health coverage is available for everyone during such health emergencies.
More investment needs to be channelled towards research in order to formulate effective strategies in handling health emergencies from various perspectives, such as economic recovery plans, border control, immigration, remote work, distance learning, and social services.
Additionally, private sector companies should be encouraged to invest in research that revolves around vaccine development, case management and treatment plans, invention of life-saving medical devices, digital health technologies, data dashboards, and effective medications.
On a global scale, nations need to work closely together to boost national health security and provide real-time global bio-surveillance data, updated health research, technical advice, and emergency response efforts as viruses know no borders.
By reimagining a holistic, fully-functioning health security system, nations can strengthen their abilities to combat the current Covid-19 pandemic and tackle future outbreaks with lesser damages.
Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature