What are some of the lessons and challenges from the coronavirus pandemic that we can or should keep in mind for the next public health crisis (or one that’s already unfolding)?
Stephen Bendle is a member of the Australian Public Health Consultant’s Network and works in the area of public health advocacy, policy and stakeholder relations. He writes here for the latest edition of Around the Traps, an irregular column provided by members of the Network.
Stephen Bendle writes:
The current COVID19 pandemic has reengineered so many aspects of our lives. This has ranged from social interactions, workplaces, economic and health practices. There is so much change in such a short time that I thought it would be prudent to make a note of those things that need to be remembered when we face similar challenges in the future.
1. Public health is a real thing
Having spent a career in the health sector you will finally feel vindicated. People will now understand what you do, what you talk about and why it is important.
Overnight some of your best friends will suddenly become public health experts and you will be surprised that many are self-proclaimed professors in epidemiology, immunology, and biology.
Most people will come to realise that health is not all about personal choice. They will see that people’s health is largely affected by where they live and work, their age and schooling, and whether they have a roof over their head and a support network they can call on. It will still be affected by companies large and small and most importantly by government policy.
2. Health wins
Governments can make momentous decisions regarding economic policy in order to protect the health of its people. Economic rationalism can take a holiday.
Governments and central banks can step in, and despite their political colour, promises and ideology, they can ensure that health is prioritised no matter the cost.
However, expect pressure to “snap back” from the focus on health and safety of the population to the ubiquitous GDP as the measure of the country’s success. Maybe by next time the Canadian Index of Wellbeing or the NZ Well-being Budget will have been adopted here.
3. The divide will get bigger
Despite the significant government intervention, inequalities will persist, and some will become greater. We have seen universities, international students, creative industries, casual workers, and visa holders left behind. Women are always disproportionately impacted. Failing to support the most vulnerable will undermine efforts to address the crisis.
4. Science matters
Hopefully, every decision relating to a health crisis, like our pandemic, will still be based on scientific advice. Not all the evidence will be available, but the best minds should be trusted with government policy. Sleep easy knowing that, for at least the term of the crisis, your destiny will be in the hands of the brightest and most qualified – not the most popular.
Footnote: I wonder if this precedent will be applied to other critical but less “in your face” crises – climate change?
5. Resilience can resound
You might be surprised at what a resilient species we can be. Every aspect of your life may be turned upside down. And I mean every. Most people will be able to adapt, make change, and carry on. There will be some who feel another conspiracy theory is upon you, however, the resilience of your community is one of the most resounding outcomes you will see.
6. Compliance is possible
The other is our compliance. Given enough reason, the population will comply with what in other times would be regarded as the most draconian instructions. They will need reassurance and to be shown the light at the end of the tunnel, but they will comply.
An example is that, despite the concerns about privacy, a significant number (and I am talking millions) will download surveillance apps on their mobile phones to assist in reducing the severity of a pandemic. Ironically, many others will complain about privacy on global platforms renowned for making commercial gold from private information.
7. Leadership is critical
People across the globe look to leaders and I can only hope that you have strong leadership when disaster strikes again. The pre-requisite skills have always been obvious: to be strong, clear, honest, and decisive; don’t exaggerate, but don’t downplay the problem; stick to timelines; be visible and available; bipartisanship is critical but expect that to crumble during the end game.
8. Re-engineer work
There are various methods of working and the work will still get done. Managers need to trust their people.
I am sure that working from home is no longer a biggie. You probably have already worked out that you don’t need all those meetings, and I hope that Zoom is fixed by then.
Look at the next crisis as an innovation factory. You will most likely be able to re-engineer your business to deal with isolated customers, disrupted supply chains, reduced staff and non-traditional product lines. Pivot to new opportunities. Those ideas in the top draw, the ones you have always wanted to try – now will be the time. Change. You will have to, and it can be exciting.
9. Many jobs are essential
In our case the frontline health workers received standing ovations. But the shelf stackers, the plumbers, the teachers, and childcare workers were all critical cogs in keeping our world ticking.
10. New ways emerge
Kids will survive learning from home for a while. You should still be able to visit the doctor or physio via the Internet. Online shopping and home delivery is still the way to go.
11. Be isolated but connected
If you must be physically isolated, you will be amazed by the strength of community connection. Whether it be balcony music concerts, streamed performances, dawn vigils to remember fallen heroes or scheduled eruptions of applause and thanks to front-line responders, your heart will soar with the thoughtfulness of isolated people and in the generosity of organisations that pivot to provide services at no cost during the crisis. And your baking and cooking skills may also surprise you.
12. Mother nature says thanks
Google the pictures of blue skies that were seen over India, the fish in the canals of Venice, swathes of smog-free China, animals returning to villages and towns across the globe. Mother Nature will adapt very quickly, which gives us some hope that we haven’t run out of time to save our climate.
13. Beware the ill effects
While casinos and pokies venues might close, watch out for the huge increase in online gambling, and expenditure on alcohol and guns and ammunition. Protect vulnerable women and children who may be isolated in high risk environments. Use the empty hotels as refuges.
Right now, we don’t know the full mental health impacts of isolation, but it is expected to be significant. And it is likely to be one of the great costs of the pandemic.
14. Welfare is a safety net, not a handout
We finally realised that government welfare is actually a safety net and not a handout to go surfing. Millions of Australians were supported by government payments to put food on the table, a roof over their head and hope in their heart. Not a single recipient was called a bludger.
15. Always have a good stock of toilet paper
Just a heads up.
Previous Around the Traps articles
- Fake news in public health: what’s the antidote?
- Backlash in public health
- On the new work order: what it means for public health peeps, and others
- Innovation in health promotion is more than just a fad
- Around the Traps: what works for knowledge translation?
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