Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

As some governments begin to ease COVID-19 restrictions, researchers are warning that the frequency of pandemics is likely to rise in the future. It would therefore be wise for governments and societies to act on some of the lessons from the COVID-19 crisis.

Some of the mistakes in dealing with the virus occurred because there was little information about it and the disease it causes. But closer cooperation between countries and a more extensive information exchange could have helped governments to introduce the appropriate measures more effectively. What other lessons can we learn to help us to better protect ourselves and societies for future virus outbreaks?

Hoping for "herd immunity"

It’s safe to say based on evidence that hoping for the population to develop a so-called “herd immunity” would have caused death rates most governments were unwilling to risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sweden was the exception and chose to follow this path, but as a result, the country’s mortality rate was among the highest in the world (opens a new window) with 50.68 deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to Johns Hopkins University data (opens a new window) (as of June 24) – around 5 to 10 times more than its Scandinavian neighbours Denmark (10.40), Finland (5.93) or Norway (4.67).

Tracking down the virus

Implementing early and extensive testing has proved to be effective in controlling the virus and has even allowed some countries to avoid a lockdown. Tracking and tracing individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 to warn others who had been in contact with them and advise them to get tested or to go into quarantine has also helped limiting the spread of the disease. But in what is seen as a controversial move, some governments have demanded direct access to personal data from mobile phone network providers to monitor people’s movements. While such digital surveillance may have helped to discover new clusters of cases that would otherwise have gone undetected, it came at the expense of individual privacy rights (opens a new window).

Privacy groups are particularly concerned (opens a new window) when intelligence agencies take the lead in the development of coronavirus tracking programmes such as in Pakistan and Israel, or when governments outsource the tracing programme to private companies. The United Nations (UN) have warned (opens a new window) that the potential for abuse is high. While the access to personal data may be justified during an emergency but there is the danger that it becomes normalised after the crisis.

Automated contact tracing applications (opens a new window) that keep individuals’ data protected and only store it on the individual’s phone can be a viable alternative. These don’t use a central database to store personal movement data that could be used to re-identify individuals and reveal with whom they have spent time. 

Trust in governments

Smart governance is essential to implement appropriate measures at the right time even with access to top notch scientific advice and notification systems and software in place. Timing was crucial during the crisis since a delay in introducing a lockdown can add thousands of deaths.

Furthermore, the population is more likely (opens a new window) to observe the lockdown rules where public trust in government is high. Where trust is low, police and even military action was required to enforce the lockdown. The latter can, however, trigger a backlash with protesters calling for the population to ignore government measures. Public trust in government will also be essential if new COVID-19 clusters appear and tighter social distancing measures need to be reintroduced.

Leaders who have been honest about the limitations they faced to combat the virus are more likely to have gained credibility (opens a new window) among the population and to have been more effective in combating the disease than those who were unwilling or unable to do so. 

Trust in partnerships

During the pandemic, some countries have rediscovered the importance of self-sufficiency (opens a new window) when they were unable to source enough personal protective equipment (PPE) or some sorts of pharmaceuticals. The virus outbreak has exposed the weakness of global supply chains with regards to essential goods or replacement parts as well as food and essential workers. Some countries decided to ban the export of some essential goods to avoid running out of necessary supplies.

The crisis has also emphasised the importance of international cooperation such as sharing information, coordinating responses and pooling resources such as protective gear, medicine and tests. 

Inequalities exposed 

The pandemic has exposed weaknesses of healthcare systems. In countries where health insurance is tied to employment, individuals have been left without protection when they lost their job during the pandemic. In addition to the hardship this may cause in case of infection, the lack of access to professional treatment can increase the risk of contagion for people close to them, and therefore counteract efforts to control the pandemic.

Similarly, delivery services are often based on gig-economy jobs and zero-hours contracts and mostly don’t include sick and paid leave. These services were particularly important during the pandemic but workers faced a higher risk of infection due to the personal interaction involved in their jobs. Some workers may also have felt compelled (opens a new window) to continue working despite having COVID-19 symptoms to secure income, potentially contributing further to the infection rate of the population.

From homeless people to those living in poor and crowded conditions such as migrant workers, the less privileged members of society became more visible to governments during the crisis since they struggled to observe social distancing rules.

The UK government for example has required local councils (opens a new window) in England and Wales to provide emergency accommodation in budget hotels to every homeless person living on the streets in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Early action to address the plight of homeless and migrant workers can help limiting the spread of the virus.

Given the globalised nature of our economies and societies, solutions for future epidemics and pandemics will require better cooperation between leaders in governments as well as in public and private organisations. It is possible that insurance solutions could reduce the potential impact on economies and societies in future. Watch this space for a follow-up article that will discuss the options that are currently being developed.