Pandemics: What Are They and How Can We Learn From Them?

Written by Nikol Nikolova
Edited by Yunshu Li and Vijay Suryavanshi

Photo by Tonik on Unsplash

With over 82 million confirmed cases and more than 1.8 million fatalities, COVID-19 is now a global health emergency.¹ Nevertheless, experts, among them scientists and historians, remind us that this is not our first, nor will it be our last battle against a deadly infectious disease. Michael Baker, writing for The Guardian Healthcare Network, revealed that there are over 1,400 pathogens known to humans and nearly all of them have the potential to cause epidemics, which in turn can escalate to pandemics.² With each public health crisis, governments, epidemiologists, and doctors, as well as society as a unit, gain access to vital lessons that allow us to be better equipped for future emergencies.

How Do We Define a Pandemic?

The terms pandemic and epidemic have been used fairly interchangeably when discussing COVID-19 and other viruses. However, there are subtle differences between their dictionary definitions. An epidemic tends to refer to a disease that affects numerous people within a specific region or community. On the other hand, the World Health Organization (WHO) generally defines pandemics as the worldwide spread of a new disease.³ In simple terms, a pandemic is an epidemic that has managed to spread globally. The WHO has officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Other examples of past pandemics include the Spanish flu in 1918, the 2009 swine flu outbreak, and the deadliest pandemic known to us — the Black Death in the 14th century.

Preparation and Persistence Are Key

According to Eric Fevre, professor at the University of Liverpool and the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, “new diseases pop-up in the human population probably three to four times per year”.⁴ In essence, not only are future pandemics unpreventable, but they must also be constantly anticipated. Hence, investing in research and public health resources is vital.

The medical journal The Lancet highlights this as, although it condemns certain scandals China had with censorship surrounding COVID-19, it also insists that we can learn plenty from the country’s response to the pandemic.⁵

According to the timeline of events, when COVID-19 emerged in December 2019, Chinese scientists managed to rapidly identify the virus. By January 2020, China and Hong Kong already had detailed information on the genomic characteristics and clinical features of patients with COVID-19 and had begun sharing this with other countries and global organizations. It serves as a reminder that no nation is entirely immune to global outbreaks of diseases, however, this pandemic has shown us that some are indeed better prepared than others.

This is not only the case in terms of resources and research but also communities and politicians’ willingness and commitment to work together. Shockingly, countries that were expected to handle this pandemic well are now in a critical state. In October 2019, the Global Health Security Index assessed the levels of preparation globally, stating that the US, UK, and the Netherlands were the best-equipped nations to handle a pandemic.⁶ Fast forward to December 2020, the US has the highest death toll, whilst the UK currently ranks in sixth place.

Meanwhile, countries like New Zealand have been prime examples of the effectiveness of strict and aggressive public health measures. Three days after WHO declared COVID-19 a global health emergency, the country introduced the necessary precautions to contain the virus.⁷ New Zealand’s Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, confirmed that the country relied heavily on science, rapid testing and isolation as key strategies.

Trust Science

In addition to investing in public health, political figures and society as a whole must learn to trust scientists. A global pandemic can be tackled only with the assistance of those who have expertise in epidemiology. Therefore, trusting science and collaborating with global organizations ensures politicians have access to the necessary knowledge and information to put in place effective measures, consequently, controlling the pandemic.

“Governments and their leaders must respect science, understand its value, and act on it in a way that is best for society.” — The Lancet.

The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Civic Life and Public Health national opinion survey revealed that mistrust and scepticism surrounding science is the main factor that allows for misinformation to spread effortlessly.⁸

As a consequence, science sceptics were less likely to trust public health experts for information on COVID-19. Among the group that claimed to trust science, 78% confirmed that they trust medical experts. Conversely, among the science sceptics, a mere 36% trusted medical experts.

During this pandemic, we have seen numerous cases of politicians dismissing science. It is vital for leaders to use scientific research to make informed choices, as this not only reduces the spread of misinformation but also it urges the nation to follow the necessary measures.

Misinformation is capable of putting millions of lives at risk. This deadly phenomenon of our society dates back to multiple past public health crises. During the Ebola epidemic in 2014, there were numerous tweets found intending to suggest possible cures and treatments, a significant amount of which proved to be false.⁹ Public health experts, social media companies, and policymakers must collectively take tangible steps towards controlling the spread of misinformation, to avoid putting lives at risk. Let’s take the success story of New Zealand as an example. Dr Ashley Bloomfield states that government officials in the country regularly referred to materials released by the WHO to ensure their decisions were informed by science.

Master the Art of Collective Work

As we face global crises, perhaps one of the most essential lessons we must master is the art of collective work. Throughout this pandemic, there have been numerous cases of scapegoating specific nations as well as countries having a strong individualistic mindset. It’s in times of such emergencies that our society will be truly tested, and the failure to work collectively during this pandemic has indeed exposed the faults of our thinking. We must remember that the xenophobia that this pandemic has brought will only impede our efforts to develop a cure.

Leaders referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” strongly echoes the xenophobic rhetoric of past pandemics, including the Spanish Flu. Trevor Hoppe, from the State University of New York, Albany, suggests that the very name of the pandemic reveals much about the xenophobia and scapegoating issues that our society has. Trying to label a disease as the name of a specific community is, according to Hoppe, “closely related to the desire to wall off those who are viewed as threats of contagion”.¹⁰ However, in many cases, this desire is irrational as this virus doesn’t belong to any particular ethnicity or nationality. Even in the case of the Spanish Flu, the pandemic didn’t originate in Spain and its real geographic origin is debated to this day.¹¹

“Political manipulation will give the virus loopholes to exploit.” — Wang Yi, State Councillor and Foreign Minister¹²

Xenophobic political rhetoric causes division and conflict, and infectious diseases thrive in such situations. A world where we are united in our resources, knowledge, and work means a world where we tackle any global issues more effectively.

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