City health workers fumigate the Guadalupe community as part of preventive measures against the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in Santa Tecla, El Salvador February 3, 2016. = Image Credit: REUTERS

The rapid spread of the Zika virus powerfully demonstrates the threat posed by infectious disease crises. The Ebola epidemic, which began in December 2013, revealed flaws in almost every aspect of our ability to respond to such catastrophes. Yet, with Ebola now less visible on the front pages, the political commitment to spend the money required has waned dramatically. Zika shows that we cannot afford to continue as we are.

The business case for investing in preparedness is compelling. A recent report by the commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future estimated that the expected economic cost of potential pandemics was more than $60 billion (Dh220.68 billion) a year. It proposed spending $4.5 billion a year to strengthen our defences.

Globalisation means our economic vulnerability to infectious disease outbreaks has increased. In a media-saturated world, fear is much more contagious than any infection. Fear of infection drives people to change behaviour, cancelling holidays and business trips or avoiding imported products. It is this behavioural change rather than the disease itself that determines the scale of the economic effect.

We see this with Zika. After warnings to pregnant women against travelling to infected areas, Caribbean nations whose economies are dependent on tourism are seeing cancellations escalate by the day. The challenges faced by Brazil, the epicentre of the outbreak, are particularly acute. The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August ought to boost the country’s struggling economy but people may simply stay away.

If fear and behavioural change shape the economic impact of epidemics, then effective communication of the risks and potential mitigants should be central components of any response.

Yet with Ebola, governments struggled to get their messages across.

In west Africa, for example, efforts to contain the virus were hindered by local communities’ distrust of official pronouncements. And in the developed world, a handful of cases of Ebola unleashed a torrent of rumours and conflicting advice.

Engaging with people

We are seeing the same happen with Zika: Stories circulate about the potential for the virus to be transmitted through sexual contact or the alleged triggering of the outbreak by genetically modified mosquitoes. Whether or not such stories are true, they drive people’s actions.

The old model, in which people responded obediently to public health messages from authoritative sources, no longer works. Governments now need sophisticated communication strategies using all the digital tools at their disposal. They must engage with people rather than simply tell them what to do. They need to accept that since there will be a multitude of voices and data sources, they will have to earn the right to be listened to. Too often, instructions are handed down from on high.

Governments also need to work together through the World Health Organisation. A coordinated approach to travel advice will be far more effective and less economically damaging than the blizzard of restrictions we saw with Ebola. However, this requires a degree of real-time coordination that neither the WHO nor most national public health agencies are set up to deliver.

While containing the spread of Zika is the immediate priority, we also need to break the pattern of responding to each pandemic as it occurs.

A more robust framework for protecting humanity from such threats is required. That will involve strengthening public health systems at the national level and more effective global responses led by the WHO. Without them, the cost in human lives and livelihoods will be immense.

— Financial Times

Peter Sands is senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and chairman of the commission on a Global Health Risk Framework For the Future.