In November, The Academy of Medical Sciences and The Lancet International Health Lecture 2021 reflected on the global pandemic response. In this blog, Professor Frances Brodsky FMedSci, former Vice President (International) of the Academy, shares three top lessons learnt from the event.
While the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, action must be taken now to rebuild society and prepare for the future. Three internationally relevant lessons were formulated by each of the speakers, who made key contributions to how their respective countries handled the pandemic.
- Public health depends on community partnerships
“Once the horror of this crisis fades, business as usual must not resume.”
Dr Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti, World Health Organization Regional Director for Africa.
Outbreaks start and end in communities, so the public should be engaged as partners in both the emergency preparedness and response. It’s too late to start social reforms once disaster strikes, so safe working conditions, adequate housing and access to healthcare must be in place to help communities play their part in stemming transmission.
Public understanding, involvement and compliance are crucial for achieving results in tackling health challenges. When crises test trust in institutions, community leaders can act as conveyors of reliable information.
For example, in Africa where there was already mistrust in vaccines prior to the pandemic, associations, churches, and women’s groups were used to promote public health messages about vaccine safety.
The epidemic of misinformation created by the pandemic has demonstrated the need for scientists to strengthen their communication with local leaders, who are trusted figures in the community.
- Global collaboration is essential
“There are no passports for viruses.”
Professor George Gao, Director-General of Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
In global health emergencies, there is a need for the mutual responsibility of nations —for sharing data, treatments and vaccines, and preventing cross-border transmission – to be strengthened.
We saw hundreds of different responses to the pandemic, rather than a global response to a global pandemic. We must rebuild the institutions that can coordinate countries’ actions.
Multilateral organisations set up to distribute COVID-19 tools equitably, such as the ACT accelerator and COVAX, are good starting points for the kind of international collaboration that should be aspired to in future emergencies.
- Investment in health must be equitable
“The pandemic overall has highlighted the relevance of social determinants for mental as well as physical health.”
Professor Helen Herrman, Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in Mental Health, Melbourne.
In a vicious cycle, there are higher COVID-19 infection and mortality rates in people in socially and economically deprived populations, and those with pre-existing mental and physical conditions. At the same time, the economic strain of the pandemic has pushed more people into poverty, and the stress associated with enforced isolation and loss of work has led to global cases of depression and anxiety increasing by around 25% each in 2020.
The speakers stressed in the lecture that we have seen the financial impact of an infectious disease outbreak, but we underestimate the influence of mental ill-health, both its impact on those affected but also their contribution to the economy. We must continue to invest in health systems and innovative research, whilst expanding health service coverage to ensure equitable access.
Equity will come from multisectoral investments. This includes engaging with the business sector to safeguard livelihoods from loss of work, and community-level interventions such as life skills training in schools, to give young people social and emotional competencies and protect them from future mental ill-health.
COVID-19 deaths in many countries continue to rise amidst efforts to vaccinate, and nations struggle with the severe burden of mental ill-health and long-COVID.
Throughout this pandemic, science has delivered results, from vaccinations to treatments. The challenge has been ensuring these are delivered fairly for all.
The Academy of Medical Sciences and The Lancet International Health Lecture 2021 has emphasised that there is much work to be done to ensure the lessons learnt from the pandemic can be applied to future global health challenges, and that global expertise is readily shared.
To watch the lecture in full, visit the International Health Lecture page.