In a viral TED talk video from 2015, billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates warned about our unpreparedness for potential pandemics given our past experiences in dealing with viruses from the 1918 flu outbreak until the last Ebola crisis. Gates suggested we prepare to fight a virus as we would prepare for war, by strengthening our health systems, creating medical corps, and pairing medical and military.
Now, as we are facing the COVID-19 pandemic, countries with weaker healthcare systems are scrambling to contain the outbreaks. Ironically, some of these countries have been actively equipping themselves to defeat others in wars, but are unable to defeat the COVID-19 outbreak within their borders.
In this war against COVID-19, some countries are sending soldiers to fight unarmoured. In several of the worst-hit countries, the failure has been in gathering essential basic Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like masks, gowns, and face shields for health personnel. In the United States, many doctors and nurses have taken to social media to inform about shortages in hospitals.
For others, preparing ahead for war also meant preparing ahead for the virus. “Prepper nation” Finland was well prepared with an enviable stockpile of medical supply as it has not stopped stockpiling since the Cold War. This is a good example for us to anticipate the worst and hope for the best, because the next pandemic will not come with rolling drums, and all we can do is be prepared for the battle.
COVID-19 has exposed a weakness in the U.S healthcare system’s ability to mobilize citizens. Due to fear of costs, many Americans have avoided testing for the coronavirus. This also urges the importance of creating a universal or more affordable healthcare system in the United States. Albeit late, the bill to make coronavirus testing free of cost was passed in early March by the time the virus had grappled the country, but widespread testing remains slow to implement.
South Korea was similar to the US in its early phase, but quickly turned the tide by mass-producing tests. It was sloping up the curve of coronavirus infections until it began contact-tracing and testing to isolate infected patients. With the lessons learned from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory System (SARS), South Korea was able to rapidly generate testing kits to contain the outbreak and flatten the curve.
South Korea also collected personal information of citizens to track the spreading of the virus and to send alerts about the potential dangers of nearby infections. This adds to the debate regarding whether governments surveilling citizens’ movements is a violation of citizens’ rights or not. Perhaps, in the post-coronavirus world, there is no harm in a tradeoff between our information to the government in return for quick mobilization during such public health emergencies.
Certainly, the impacts of COVID-19 will be reflected in the elections to come. In upcoming elections, the pandemic-readiness of leaders will be a deciding factor for citizens. In the future, the need for effective health care needn’t be wedged between the debate of capitalist or socialist policies, and support for universal healthcare is likely to become more widespread.
After COVID-19, world health systems should prioritize resources and benefits for our health workers to act swiftly in health emergencies. The important lesson is to prepare our health systems and not stumble in minor pitfalls by squandering time and resources in times of outbreaks.