To end a pandemic, the world becomes a classroom

The learning curve has been steep for nations in adopting qualities of leadership that can stop the coronavirus.

Pupils sit in desks with yellow dividers, set up as a measure against the coronavirus disease, at Dajia Elementary school in Taipei, Taiwan March 13.

As more people cope with the coronavirus outbreak, they also have had to master some new terms. Social distancing. Self-isolate. Elbow bumps. Quarantines are now called lockdowns or containment zones.

And this is the point. The pandemic is not going to leave us where it found us. Humanity is on a learning curve, not only on how best to survive but, with higher levels of understanding, to prevent another pandemic.

For all the fear and suffering over COVID-19, says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, “We will all learn lessons from this outbreak.”

Just last September, a special panel of the World Bank set up to track preparedness for pandemics bemoaned a general reluctance to retain lessons after each outbreak. “We ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides,” the panel found.

Yet in this latest pandemic, such a charge may not be the case. The tactics of several Asian countries in containing the virus are providing object lessons for the rest of the world. Reports of their “best practices” appear to be traveling quicker than the virus.

China, for example, made mistakes in the early weeks of the outbreak in December and January. Its leaders relied on secrecy and lies. Then in a lesson about flexibility and humility, they admitted mistakes and discovered that truth about the virus can be an asset to win public support.

In Singapore, the government used clear messaging and aggressive tracking of infected people. In Hong Kong, officials relied heavily on school closings and other reductions of large gatherings. South Korea is now famous for opening drive-through centers where people could be tested quickly for the virus.

For its efforts, Taiwan has earned the most praise. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association cites the island nation as “an example of how a society can respond quickly to a crisis and protect the interests of its citizens.”

“Through early recognition of the crisis, daily briefings to the public, and simple health messaging, the government was able to reassure the public by delivering timely, accurate, and transparent information regarding the evolving epidemic,” the article concluded.

Not all attempts to contain the virus are suitable for every country. Nations have different ideas, for example, on striking a balance between civil liberties and draconian crackdowns. Yet a common thread is that leaders must get public buy-in. They must be alert to emerging threats, honest about information, calm in their messaging, and adequate in providing resources. These qualities of leadership not only defeat pandemics but also quiet the fear that often drives them. The world, says Dr. Tedros of WHO, must “heed the lessons these outbreaks are teaching us.” 

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