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An analysis of pandemics


Existential risks and enablers of change - Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies

There is no going back - so where do we go from here?

The COVID-19 pandemic is by no means over. A report published by CIFS, one of our research partnerships, explains that we should recognise the urgent need to manage the ravages of the pandemic while taking the decisions to minimise the effects of a second or third wave. Furthermore, we need to prepare for the risk of a currently unknown disease again reaching a pandemic scale.

It is irrefutable that we had the technology, experience, and knowledge needed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in a coordinated, timely, and controlled way. It is also undeniable that in most countries, this did not happen to the extent necessary. Rather, the objective must be to look forward to the other side of this pandemic and take full advantage of the evolution of medicine, technology, Big Data, genomics, IoT, AI.

The risk landscape around future disease outbreaks and pandemics, natural or engineered, demands new regulation and interdisciplinary engagement within the global scientific community. Additionally, as these risks are constantly evolving, our understanding of how to co-evolve with them requires exploration of extreme scenarios and sustained global institutional collaboration.

One of the most recent developments (as of late May 2020), is that the antiviral medication Remdesivir has been shown to significantly lower mortality of COVID-19 if provided at an early enough time. While this is no cure, it may turn out to be a contributor to lessoning the threat of the disease.

Meanwhile, research into an actual vaccine is ongoing, and much depends on whether or not we manage to find one - and if we do, how fast we are able to produce and distribute it on a global scale.

While it is too early to tell how these and other ongoing developments will play out, and what their impacts will be, it has become clear that the eradication of the disease will not bring us back to the world as it was before. Now is the time to look ahead to try and reimagine our systems and structures and use this catastrophe as a chance to reassess the status quo.

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Reinforcing global collaboration and improving warning and response systems

Just like a tsunami warning system, there are already early warning systems for epidemics and pandemics. For many countries and regions, the reason why these systems were not used to their full potential was not a matter of not having the right technology available, but mainly due to political barriers, wilful negligence, or poor implementation.

Pandemic preparedness is like health insurance: you hope to never collect on it, and it is easy to lose sight of the danger. Overcoming transnational and intergenerational risks will require creative solutions and shared political will. Our current pandemic has made clear that our existing response frameworks focus primarily on combatting outbreaks on the national level, and the international patchwork of responses we have seen will not suffice when the next pandemic, potentially with higher contagiousness and/or higher mortality, comes around.

The next era in digital global health

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the vulnerabilities and shortcomings in global health by pushing the limits of healthcare systems. However, healthcare professionals are now seeing how health-related data can make the crucial difference between life and death, and digital health technologies are being rapidly implemented into existing health systems to curb the virus, with telemedicine finally maturing and becoming a lifesaving tool. It is time to collaborate across jurisdictions with new forms of data and an even more widespread use of digital health technologies, enabling remote care and predictive public healthcare, as well as more preventive care. 

What our governments must now do is find a way to implement it without letting Big Tech companies dictate the terms or scare us away from the benefits by engaging in a controlled partnership with them. This also goes for behavioural data and contact tracing technology such as the announced co-operation between Apple and Google.

We require transparency, traceability, and accountability for our data, ensuring that standards are kept, and that health data does not become a tool in the hands of the few.

While there is an ongoing and valid debate about where we draw the line between individual privacy and health data monitoring, the technology and visions are there.

Now, we need safe ways to implement them.

New policies and mission-driven approaches to innovation

The pandemic has provoked an unprecedented level of response from policymakers around the globe. In the first quarter of 2020, more than 1.700 economic policy announcements on COVID-19 have been made by governments and institutions worldwide. Although most of the political devotion in this phase of forced experimentation is attentive to the immediate crisis response, some nations are seizing this momentum to fast track policies that represent more substantial, long-term shifts towards new paradigms.

Beyond economic stimulus and relief packages, the need for more decentralised approaches to urban planning made clear by the pandemic may have been the much-needed push towards the next generation of smart cities. In other countries and cities, initiatives that have long lain dormant on the theoretical drawing board have been quickly implanted. 

Spain has, as the first country in Europe, introduced universal basic income. In Amsterdam, the city government has adopted the so-called ‘doughnut model’ for sustainable growth, which incorporates 12 metrics for social wellbeing as well as 9 ecological ceilings metrics. Initiatives such as these point towards a widespread need to prevent a reversion to old ways of thinking and acting after the crisis.

Revitalising supranational institutions to foster global resilience

This can only be done in a coordinated effort – and it must go beyond the current destructive US-China power struggle for technological hegemony. There will never be a perfect time financially or politically to implement global institutional change; but, there will hardly be a better time than now. We need to strengthen organisations like the UN and the WHO for a coordinated co-operation and a new understanding of transborder collaboration by dividing the responsibility so that the UN works to secure human rights (e.g. protecting personal data) and the WHO works to coordinate national, regional, and global healthcare strategies, taking on a more leading than a merely coordinating role relying on volunteer contributions.

No country can deal with pandemics on its own. Not only are national healthcare resources impacted differently across the globe, but the knowledge of how to deal with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic will also be scattered – maybe even in such a way that one country has more in common with a country in another region than its immediate neighbours. To meet the future as a more prepared global society, we need both the creation of public private partnerships with long-term goals, as well as the inclusion of civil society organisations in activities that aim to improve our preparedness locally, nationally, regionally, and globally.

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