"This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing in Geneva. It's also the first time the WHO has called an outbreak a pandemic since the H1N1 "swine flu" in 2009. The COVID-19 emergency has brought the world to a halt. This crisis is made worse by the bombardment of information each day by television news and social media with no end in sight.
While there were several mistakes made by global governments during the crisis, there are also ways to put a stop to the coronavirus crisis. Initially in December, the Community Chinese Party (CCP)’s propaganda machine reportedly tried to tamp down initial concerns raised by medical professionals in Wuhan. It accused Li Wenliang, the doctor who originally tried to inform colleagues about the coronavirus in Wuhan and its ability to spread from person to person, of “inciting panic” and “spreading rumors” – until he himself tragically contracted the virus and died. Taiwan also accused the World Health Organization (WHO) of failing to communicate an early warning about transmission of the coronavirus between humans, slowing the universal reaction to the pandemic. However, they were not recognized by the WHO due to Chinese insistence that Taiwan was simply a wayward Chinese province instead of a separate state.
Now that the number of coronavirus cases in the West is skyrocketing, countries have announced drastic measures, including school closures and lockdowns.The Western world spectacularly failed in its initial response to the virus by cutting funding from essential health services and research before the crisis and later by denying its existence and its severity. The United States and Europe should take this moment as a wake-up call to pay far more attention to addressing invisible threats like this, including their excessive dependence on China for crucial supply chains that allow us to produce pharmaceuticals and high-tech gear. However, we can follow steps to better respond to the virus.
The near-term objective should be to minimize the acute, exponential growth of the outbreak in order to reduce suffering and the strain on our health care system.
For example, Hong Kong and Singapore have achieved linear growth of COVID-19 cases, staving off the terrifying exponential upward curve confronting Italy. The United States needs to take note.
This virus is a threat because it is both highly infectious and lethal. Not enough people are being tested, despite significant recent effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By the time cases are confirmed, significant community transmission has likely already occurred. This is a classic tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon. The virus fire that threatens to burn out of control. It is one we can still contain, even extinguish — if we act.
The best way to put out the fire is discovering a novel vaccine, but that might take some time. In the meantime, we must focus on reducing the height of the outbreak curve. This requires coordination and implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions. School closures, isolation of the sick, home and self-quarantines of those who have come into contact with the sick, social distancing, telework/telehealth and large-gathering cancellations must be implemented before the spread of the disease in any community reaches above 2-4 percent.
Starting now, public health messaging should be framed in light of this clear objective. Community-based interventions are needed to delay the outbreak peak, as in the 1918 influenza epidemic. The difference between the steps taken in slow-moving Philadelphia and quick-acting St. Louis is staggering. Aggressive early interventions ease the peak burden on hospitals and other health care infrastructure. Ultimately, these measures can also diminish the overall number of cases and health impacts.
The world also needs to invest in disease surveillance, including a case database that is instantly accessible to the relevant organizations and rules that require countries to share their information. Governments should have access to lists of trained personnel, from local leaders to global experts, who are prepared to deal with an epidemic immediately, as well as lists of supplies to be stockpiled or redirected in an emergency. In addition to these technical solutions, we need diplomatic efforts to drive international collaboration and data sharing. Developing antivirals and vaccines involves massive clinical trials and licensing agreements that would cross national borders. Some vaccines that can be tested tropically won’t work in other environments. Overall, mutual agreements should be shared diplomatically.
These are the actions that leaders should be taking now. There is no time to waste. We must take care of high-risk populations, including the elderly and people with preexisting health problems, and show compassion to one another. We must now remember our national purpose to unite and remember that this virus affects the whole world. We should not, and cannot, let the depressing news defeat us. We will beat this.