COVID-19 has paralysed the world.
China restricted the movement of more than 60 million people. European countries have been locked down. Markets are rattled by the uncertainty. And industries that rely on people moving around — airlines, hotels, restaurants — are in huge trouble.
Scientists still debate how the pandemic will pan out. Some estimate that 20–60% of the population will become infected. Others argue that when the northern hemisphere heats up heading towards the summer months, the infection rates will cool down.
One thing is clear: The world will never be the same.
The epidemic is a good reminder of a few universal truths. And it holds lessons for what we can do differently in the future.
1. The World Is Interconnected
Significant events in one place of the globe will impact the rest of the world. To root out any communicable disease, whether COVID-19 or tuberculosis, countries must cooperate across borders. Building walls won’t cut it.
Let’s use this event to reimagine globalisation.
Beyond trade and the free movement of people, we must encourage the flow of health data between countries and encourage joint responses. It is in every country’s national interest to strengthen collaboration.
We can use the fight against malaria in Asia as a possible model. For example, the countries surrounding the Mekong river share updated information, learn from each other, and jointly govern a large investment to eliminate malaria in the region.
2. Hard To Predict
A cataclysmic event carries shockwaves that are hard to predict. For instance, COVID-19 has shown that global drug supply chains are vulnerable to external shocks.
China produces almost all the world’s Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs). APIs are the key ingredients in essential medicines. And many of the API factories are in China’s Hubei Province, the early epicentre of the epidemic. With the closure of many API sites, we could soon be facing shortfalls of essential medicines, from antimalarials to cancer treatments.
In the short term, we must assess the risks and start planning for the possible impact they may have. In the long term, the crisis demonstrates that countries and businesses need robust contingency plans for dealing with health emergencies.
3. A Collaborative Mindset
Governments must take action, but they can’t act alone. Only governments can lock down territories and pass stimuli packages. But, without action across all of society, government policies will fall short.
Singapore has given the world a blueprint. The government provides intel and guidance to the population. Because there is trust in the government, the initial uncertainty and early signs of hoarding were quickly quelled. Businesses have also acted, asking staff to work from home, conducting daily temperature checks, distributing critical tasks across offices, and restricting business travel.
But questions remain. What will businesses do if the disease spreads? What will be the impact on business continuity if a significant percentage of its staff is sick and quarantined at home? What is the responsibility of business in caring for its staff?
These are questions with no obvious answer. The truth is, nobody knows.
Amid chaos, it’s clear that we need a more permanent public-private partnership on health security to quickly share experiences and learnings across sectors and industries.
Such a partnership must include companies from all industries; not only from the health sector. The new World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform is a step in the right direction.
4. Adopt Creative Approaches
Strong health systems + creative approaches = winning combination?
China responded forcefully to the epidemic and bought the world some time. Not every country will be able to do the same. After some initial hesitation, Europe and the US have taken similar actions, but they moved too late to contain the epidemic.
Countries in the global south are even more vulnerable. They have less resources and weaker health systems. But, many of them can still take actions and use innovative approaches. The Global Fund, under the guidance of the World Health Organization, has invested billions of dollars in HIV, TB and malaria programmes across the world. Among other things, this has enabled countries to establish a cadre of community health workers who test and treat people for HIV, TB and malaria.
If given the right protocols, they could form an extensive network for surveillance and response to COVID-19. The Global Fund has already offered to reprogramme funds for countries to respond to the outbreak.
We also need to recognise the need for different approaches to communicate with the public about COVID-19. As the virus moves from countries with ‘compliant populations’ to countries with more ‘defiant ones’ communal responsibility is appealed to and mobilized differently.
It requires different messaging that is contextual, accurate and relevant to break through. This can be done without huge amounts of funding. In Vietnam, the Ministry of Health produced an animated COVID-19 pop video, Ghen Cô Vy. Young influencers used the song, created a dance, and it’s now viral, viewed over 5 million times.
This is the time to be creative, responsible, connect without borders and escorts and use available resources in smart ways.
As two of the people behind M2030 – a regional partnership between businesses and governments to end malaria in Asia – we are both concerned and hopeful.
We are concerned about the toll on human lives and economic growth, and about the sequential impact on health systems and the ability of countries to address malaria and other communicable diseases.
We are hopeful about humanity’s resilience, about the drive towards more collaboration across borders, about the willingness of businesses and governments to work together, and about the opportunities to leverage the huge investments in malaria to also address COVID-19.
Eventually, the immediate crisis will pass. But it will remain fresh in our collective memory for years to come. Let COVID-19 be a reminder that investing in robust health systems is not optional. It’s an essential investment in our future.
About the authors: Dick van Motman is an entrepreneur, member of the M2030 Champions Council, and former Global CEO Creative of Dentsu Aegis Network; Patrik Silborn is Head of External Relations at the Asia Pacific Leaders Malaria Alliance and a Board Director of M2030.