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Are We Prepared For Future Pandemics?

Image credit Nick Morrison

As the nation registers appalling numbers of deaths due to Covid19, researchers are now looking at how that can be avoided in the event of future pandemics.

Back at the start of 2020 when Covid numbers were clearly rising it was evident that although Scotland had prepared for flu, it was not ready for the stringent public health measures required for a coronavirus outbreak. Readers will recall that there was poor communication with the public, mixed messages and a lack of PPE (personal protective equipment). Scotland adopted a 4 nation UK approach.

Deaths in the UK (25th of October 2021) where Covid is mentioned on the death certificate are a shocking 162,260:

  • England: 138,416
  • Scotland: 11,246
  • Wales: 8,370
  • N. Ireland: 3,500

Researchers at the University of Birmingham have said that politicians and businesses are too focused on the current pandemic and not paying enough attention to developing strategies to lessen the impact of the next one.

The research states that Governments must develop effective strategies to identify and control new risks – examining the roles played by citizens and the boundaries between citizen and state, with researchers identifying three key areas that are critical for the UK to prepare for the next pandemic:

  • Personal responsibility – what citizens can do for themselves and society. Vaccination, for example, reduces personal risk of death and serious illness, but only suppresses the pandemic if the majority of citizens take part.
  • Boundaries between personal or community responsibility and state action – in the UK failings existed long before COVID-19. For example, in the UK, individuals, charities, and businesses provided food packages to families in need where Government was slow to respond. This highlights the need to enhance community resilience.  
  • Education as a cornerstone of responsible and effective citizenship –  school children of the COVID generation, for example are arguably embedding new standards of hygiene previously only practiced by medical practitioners, but the educational system must include a focus on pandemic preparedness.

Publishing their findings in the book ‘Living with Pandemics: Places, People and Policy’, the researchers call for a global discussion on risk identification – arguing that the primary policy response to a pandemic should focus on stopping pandemics from occurring.

Co-author Professor John Bryson, from the University of Birmingham, commented: 

“Bill Gates was right in calling for us to treat pandemics as if our country was preparing for war. We now face a new form of risk society with COVID-19 as one indicator of the new forms of risk that everyone living on this planet is exposed to.

“The danger is that government focuses on immediate distractions, without developing effective strategies to identify and control new forms of risk.

“COVID-19 highlights that the first policy response to a pandemic should focus on investments intended to avoid pandemics from occurring. This includes identifying potential new biological risks as well as appreciating that climate change will enhance the conditions for virus transmission – with climate change we can expect more epidemics and pandemics.”

The researchers highlight that understanding the origins and impacts of a pandemic requires a careful appreciation of the complex interrelationships between people, place, policy, and history.

They note that tensions between personal and ‘social’ responsibility occurred throughout the pandemic – for example, balancing the needs of the economy against an immediate need to reduce infection rates and driving a policy trade-off between livelihoods, morbidity, and mortality.

Consumer behaviour altered with calls to ‘shop local’ intensifying and independent businesses experiencing higher demand – thanks to an appreciation that local shops add value to the fabric of local communities.

Debates about the speed of vaccine roll-out, and the quality of test and trace services highlighted citizens’ expectations about the level of government service. This sparked a wave of citizen action, but also challenged people to think about the types of state they want and how much they are willing to pay for it.

Daily exposure to figures on infection rates, death rates, and hospital occupancy – in a context of heightened stress over government policy – demonstrate the importance of statistical literacy in understanding the realities of life during the pandemic and in underpinning alterations made by responsible citizens concerned with reducing transmissions rates.

As we move into winter there is a great fear that rising rates of Covid combined with seasonal flu will mean that deaths and severe illness will continue to rise.

This current pandemic is a symptom of climate change and there will be more. “Let’s defend our future, let’s fight for it, let’s create it” #NobelPrizeSummit

Every one of the statistics of deaths is an individual life lost which we should never forget when reading them. Even more people will be suffering for many years from long covid, including the young. As loud voices clamour for removing restrictions they should be mindful that our NHS is already under considerable stress from the rising covid numbers and this has a knock on effect to all other health services.

The World Health Organisation has recorded 4,941,039 Covid deaths (25th October 2021). Those who declare the pandemic is over neither understand the word ‘pandemic’ or have looked at what is happening across the world where cases continue to rise. This gives the virus more opportunities to mutate.

The rise in cases around the world, as people jet off on holidays and move around more, means that the virus has more opportunities to spread and to re-seed in places where rates were going down.

To stay safe you should:

Fiona Grahame

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