How can innovation help our societies in times of COVID-19 adversity?


Picture of Ricardo Baptista Leite
Ricardo Baptista Leite

CEO of HEALTH.AI, the Global Agency for Responsible AI in Health (formally known as I-DAIR), President of ‘UNITE Parliamentarians Network for Global Health’ and 2015-2016 European Young Leader (EYL40)

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic health, social and economic impact on the lives of citizens across the globe. In the face of this adversity, civil society has moved quicker than governmental institutions. We are seeing unprecedented levels of community-based solidarity through grass-root movements in both urban and rural settings. Businesses are reinventing themselves to help respond to the outbreak while simultaneously adapting their models to continue to survive in a locked-down world.

This is a time for political parties to reach across the aisle and find common ground. Portugal provides a model of success in this regard, as both the social democrats and the socialists have valued unity over petty politics. Now the question is whether the member states of the European Union are capable of displaying the same level of solidarity between themselves, in order to fulfil their promises of working towards peace and prosperity for all.

The world is facing an unknown virus and the scientific community is learning more about this disease every day. Due to the high transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2, associated with a relatively high mortality rate (in comparison with seasonal flu, for example), and knowing that our immune systems have no protection against this novel virus, it has become clear that we are navigating in uncharted waters.

In the immediate response to COVID-19, countries are doing what they can. Policies are being applied based on other experiences that seemed to have worked in Asia, at least in the short-term.

This is a time for innovation, not a time to experiment with the lives of our citizens

However, the latitude of actions varies greatly across the European Union. As the coronavirus began devastating Italy and Spain, many countries decided to lock down their societies. In Portugal, for example, as people became more aware of the severity of the situation, they started to stay at home and stopped sending their kids to school, even before the President declared the State of Emergency. The Portuguese people stepped up voluntarily, even before authorities mandated them to do so, to avoid a greater calamity.

Other countries, like Sweden have decided not to shut everything down and have put all their chips on the idea of herd immunity. And yet the mortality rate in Sweden is currently triple that in Portugal and their epidemiologists are uncertain of the outcome going forward. This is a time for innovation, not a time to experiment with the lives of our citizens. Even if the Swedish approach has certain practical merits, is it fair to give in to the inevitability of deaths, to not to do everything in our power to ensure that the elderly and other at-risk people are protected? Shouldn’t we do everything possible to avoid unnecessary loss and gain time until we develop an effective treatment or vaccine? These are profound ethical questions on which we, as a society, must reflect upon to ensure we have clearer answers in future crises.

Never in the past has the success or failure to address a global threat depended so much on our individual actions. The importance of this collective sense of responsibility in the face of the pandemic has led civil society to reinvent itself. People living in the same building or neighbourhood, and that had never previously spoken to one another, are now operating support systems for the elderly, doing their shopping for them, or simply checking in to make sure they are doing well.

Citizen-led movements have mobilised to respond to different challenges and needs as they arise. For instance, Host a Hero, a web portal here in Portugal, has connected unused homeowners all over Europe to healthcare workers that need a place to stay to avoid infecting their loved ones at home. Another example lies in a movement called ‘One Step Ahead of Coronavirus’, through which a group of volunteers work directly with healthcare workers to identify and publish all the protective equipment they are lacking on the frontline to ensure that their stocks are quickly replenished by the authorities and philanthropic initiatives.

Moving forward, even as we reopen societies, citizens will be entering a different world than one they knew before. Physical distancing will remain omnipresent, frequent hand-washing the social norm, and most countries will likely impose some sort of mandatory usage of face masks. Only a vaccine will take us back to a normal world of physical proximity and affections as before. Even so, it is likely that many of these new habits have come to stay, possibly for good reason.

Let us not lose the sense of urgency for reform and change

Following the 2014 Ebola outbreak, several institutions, philanthropies and countries came together to create the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to develop vaccines for outbreaks, and particularly to develop technologies capable of accelerating this process in the face of unknown pathogens, known as ‘Disease X’. Thanks to their persistence, leadership and ingenuity, today we are better prepared to accelerate the development process and, hopefully, deliver an effective and safe vaccine to the world. As we move forward, countries that have not supported these initiatives in the past need to find a way to reallocate their funding priorities. If we fail to keep our citizens safe, no economy can survive, let alone thrive.

Finally, in the new world that will arise from the ruins of the pandemic world, let us not lose the sense of urgency for reform and change. This is one of those ‘Never Again’ moments in history. Just as society accepts that we invest a relevant portion of our GDP towards our collective defence, mainly through military, we must now acknowledge the need to invest in health.

There is a need for command and control structures for epidemic preparedness and response. We will need national health reserves that have ongoing simulation games to prepare for worst-case scenarios and ensure that they’re ready to respond when needed. Clear action plans on how to respond to each of those potential threats need to be clearly detailed and perfected with lessons learned along the way. These national structures should be coordinated at a multilateral level (such as what NATO does in the North Atlantic), because these global health threats know no borders.

As we come out of the ruins of this crisis, we also must be capable of fostering a well-being economy that puts people front and centre. Parliaments, governments, businesses and civil society need to join forces in this effort and generate common solutions out of the diversity of existing ideological and political differences.

We are in this together. Let us be the ones who future generations can look upon as an example of global solidarity and leadership. For all of us.

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