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World was not ready for coronavirus

The US needs to lead what must be an international effort against epidemics like COVID-19


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US Vice President Mike Pence and US President Donald Trump talk during a COVID-19 pandemic briefing at the White House in Washington, DCImage Credit: AFP

The coronavirus presents a challenge for the — world — and United States the likes of which we haven’t seen in a generation, but one that has been warned of at least since 9/11.

As we address the acute symptoms of this crisis illness and death, but also social isolation and financial devastation we must think ahead to how we will confront future epidemics and pandemics. We already can take lessons from the tragedy of the coronavirus crisis and the coalition building it has inspired.

I hope we never see a pandemic like the coronavirus again. But experience tells us that a similar outbreak is more likely than not. It is not too soon to analyse the lessons of the current crisis, in order to be ready for the next one

First, we have clearly seen that neither our (the US) government nor our health care system was prepared for something like COVID-19. Congress can and should play a pivotal role in making sure necessary changes are made.

America has a lot of experience at just this sort of response, most notably in the national security field. After World War II, Congress passed laws that redesigned our security apparatus by establishing the National Security Council, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA.

Similarly, after 9/11, Congress passed laws that dramatically changed how the US confronts terrorism at home and abroad. The Department of Homeland Security was established to discern and secure the US against domestic and international threats.

Grappling with pandemic

These post-WWII and post-9/11 reforms are templates for grappling with pandemic. For example, the integration and information sharing that was put in place after the devastating attacks of 9/11 provides a model for how we should share information about infectious diseases domestically and with our allies.

Likewise, the role of the director of the National Counterterrorism Centre offers a model for a new position: director for combating infectious diseases.

This Centre for Combating Infectious Disease would combine analytical and operational functions, ensuring national preparedness for massive domestic and global health emergencies. It would have the authority to gather and disperse information required for a coordinated the government response.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would provide it with data and expertise, but so would every other relevant national agency.

For example, among its first acts would be the creation of a constantly updated, refined and monitored disease database. It would track the inventory of personal protective equipment in the national stockpile, identify which entities in the private sector should be called upon to augment critical supplies, and set rules requiring other countries to share information in order to get information.

Coronavirus, COVID-19, Covid-19
Image Credit: Pixabay

When there’s an outbreak, the public and government would have a single, authoritative source to go to learn symptoms of a disease, how to prevent its spread, and what to do if they feel sick. It would consolidate information regarding travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and “essential work” directives.

In addition to this new national security center for combating disease, we must collaborate internationally to leverage resources and expertise, much as we do when confronting other global threats such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation. If we wait to prepare for the fight against disease until it shows up on our doorstep, it will be too late.

Development of antivirals and vaccines

This will call for strong diplomatic outreach to drive data sharing and actions, from disease detection to the development of antivirals and vaccines. Just as after WWI, the US and other nations established the UN with the aim of maintaining global peace and security, we need a similar global response to meet the worldwide pandemic threat.

Our outreach must include capacity-building in Africa, Latin America and Southern Asia where there are deficits in health infrastructure: funding the construction of hospitals and clinics, training health care workers and establishing ways to monitor disease patterns and track early indicators of potential outbreaks everywhere.

In our globalised world, international borders cannot contain the likes of the coronavirus. It is up to the United States to lead what must be an international effort against epidemics, helping others as they need it. This is our historical role, and it is in our national interest: We too, may eventually need help from others.

I hope we never see a pandemic like the coronavirus again. But experience tells us that a similar outbreak is more likely than not. It is not too soon to analyse the lessons of the current crisis, in order to be ready for the next one

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