As India’s second Covid-19 wave abates it’s important to remind ourselves of what preceded the crisis; a lack of truthful messaging. The biggest blunders committed by Prime Minister Modi’s government were playing down the threat from the virus and misinforming the public. Three months ago, by practically claiming victory over Covid-19, and even hinting that herd immunity had been reached, Modi did his country an enormous disservice.
In The Great Influenza author John Barry wrote about one of the worst pandemics in human history, the misnamed “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1920. In the book, published in 2004, Barry presciently offered his thoughts on lessons to be drawn for future pandemics:
“As horrific as the disease was during the 1918-1920 pandemic some public officials made things worse by minimizing it, by trying to reassure. … If there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis.”
Well, that clearly didn’t happen in the case of the novel coronavirus pandemic that began sweeping the world in January 2020. In China, in the early stages of the crisis, lack of transparency and suppression of dissent meant the world lost precious time to prepare for and contain the virus. Perhaps a more forthcoming Chinese government could have nipped the virus in the bud.
Early on, the Trump Administration’s failures were legion. They included failure to implement comprehensive and strict border controls, insufficient supplies of personal protective equipment, and inadequate contact tracing capability and execution, among other things.
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What ensued in the critical period from February through the summer of 2020 worsened a deepening crisis. The federal government blundered on multiple counts. Most importantly, it failed to communicate the seriousness of the pandemic. Rather than consistently advancing the cause of mitigation measures, it promoted useless treatments and politicized masks and other social distancing guidelines, with President Trump actively undermining efforts to slow the spread. Tweets such as “Liberate Virginia” and “Liberate Michigan” were designed to sabotage social distancing policies put in place by governors the President didn’t like.
Vice President Mike Pence, chair of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce under the Trump Administration, repeatedly failed to level with his constituents; the American people. Instead, he threw caution to the wind when it came to adherence to mitigation rules, such as gathering size limits in churches, and even exhibited non-compliant behavior regarding the simplest of protocols (for example, not wearing a mask during a hospital visit). Pence’s frequent soothsaying, yet baseless statements did untold damage. As one of numerous examples, on April 24th of last year Pence predicted that the U.S. would “have this coronavirus epidemic behind us” by Memorial Day weekend. There was no evidence to support what he said. Expressing a falsely optimistic view probably led to many Americans dropping their guard.
The most expedient way to prepare for the next pandemic is to lay the groundwork for improved public health messaging on issues such as prevention and mitigation, as well as vaccines. Messaging matters. And truthful messaging, erring on the side of caution, is invariably the prudent course of action for any government. In brief, the less political rhetoric and spin, and the more truth-telling, the better.
Dangerous new microbes can emerge at any time. Since 2000, multiple infectious threats have emerged, including SARS in 2002-2004, H1N1 flu in 2009-2010, MERS in the 2010s, Zika in 2015-2016, and periodic Ebola outbreaks from 2014 through 2021. Covid-19 should not have come as a total surprise.
So, when pundits refer to the current pandemic as a “once-in-a-century” thing it bears repeating that another pandemic of this magnitude or worse could very well occur in a shorter time frame. “Sooner or later, a new virus may emerge or re-emerge that could be more transmissible than the Covid-19 virus, more virulent or both,” World Health Organization (WHO) Director, Dr. Tedros, and former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, wrote in February.
In most countries there was a playbook for how to deal with a pandemic, but too often it was either ignored in part or followed haphazardly. Last year, fault lines appeared between nations in terms of strategies to address Covid-19. Some countries, like Finland, Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan adopted a rigorously designed plan and stuck to it. Others seemingly had no coherent set of protocols, or abandoned them prematurely.
In and of itself, establishing different approaches to tackle an infectious disease outbreak is inherent to the diversity of nations’ policymaking institutions, legal frameworks, and cultures. What became more problematic as time went on, however, was poor and inconsistent communication, disinformation at times, and the explicit jettisoning of multilateral cooperation, particularly by the U.S.
The go-it-alone approach taken by the U.S. resulted in an inexplicable rejection in February 2020 of WHO-authorized coronavirus tests. And, it culminated in the announcement in the spring of 2020 that the U.S. would terminate its relationship with the WHO. Even though the rift with the WHO has since been mended, to this day, international cooperation on improving worldwide vaccine equity is woefully inadequate.
To better prepare for the next pandemic there must be improved intelligence and more globally coordinated surveillance. This implies setting up international monitoring systems that can rapidly detect pathogens that pose a potential danger before they strike.
In this respect, pandemic preparedness doesn’t merely mean curbing the spread of novel outbreaks. That would be too narrow and reactive. In other words, don’t wait for dangerous pathogens to emerge and only then act. Move upstream by preventing zoonotic spillovers, and reduce potentially harmful human and animal interchange.
Of course, all of this entails the need to invest heavily in (international) public health, and in a sustained way. For decades, public health has been neglected and underfunded in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Though having competent institutions to protect public health is necessary it’s not sufficient. Such entities have to be independent and be able to drown out the voices of anti-science that exist in politics today.
Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, writes in his book Preventing the Next Pandemic that policymakers can’t prevent pandemics in isolation from the now widespread anti-science movement. Fine-tuning public health messaging to clearly and vigorously defend science-based decisions is essential to prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks. What Hotez calls “scientific and vaccine diplomacy” must be bolstered, along with cooperation among nations to rebut the anti-science narrative of disinformation campaigns, as run, for example, by the anti-vaccine community.
Just prior to the Covid-19 pandemic there were spikes in vaccine-preventable and neglected diseases on the Arabian Peninsula, in parts of Latin America and Africa, and even in the Southern United States. Successfully resolving these outbreaks involved close cooperation among nations, consistent information campaigns, and strong messaging to counter disinformation.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, Technical Lead of WHO’s Covid-19 Response recently stated: “Pandemic preparedness and readiness is a constant. It doesn’t begin, it doesn’t end. There is no peacetime.” We should heed that sage advice.