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Inside/Out: Lessons Learned about Fighting Coronavirus

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In the span of four months, this coronavirus has spread to over 144 countries, infected 200,000 people and killed more than 8,000. Here’s a world map from a few days ago that illustrates what we were looking at back then. Though a few days might appear like a short amount of time, to effectively respond to an outbreak such as a coronavirus, a few days or a week can make a huge difference.

That’s one lesson learned. There are already many positives that have come out of these scary uncertain times. We’ve learned many coronavirus lessons from the data being collected from scientists and the strategies implemented by countries that were and were not successful.

The Lessons to be Learned from this Coronavirus

In countries like Iran and Italy, the spreading of the virus has been intense. It also has circulated less quickly in South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. Already, we can look at how these countries responded and learn from that data.

Initially, the situation in China was a catastrophe. However, the way the government responded to the crisis has been praised by the World Health Organization as a global model. In February, WHO was getting a lot of heat from the press about this, but now the situation in China is stabilizing, and the country is positioning itself to be the head of the global response to this coronavirus.

This is a time to work together and assess the coronavirus lessons learned from each other in order to move forward in a more productive fashion.

1. Don’t Blame China

This week, President Trump continued to blame China and use inappropriate, undiplomatic, and racist language such as the “Chinese virus.”

The world is probably going to look a lot of different than it did before this coronavirus came into our lives. This situation may very well change the power dynamics between countries. China could find itself in a unique position of power since it is emerging as a leader through the global pandemic. In other words, this wouldn’t be the time to propagate offensive ideas about China.

The Chinese government and Jack Ma, a Chinese billionaire, have sent doctors and medical supplies to countries around the world, including the United States. Chinese citizens are flying home to get tested and treated to avoid health care disasters that are happening in Western countries. In Massachusettes, a Chinese woman tried to get tested three times for this coronavirus here and could not. She had to fly back to China to get tested and treated.

In any case, this is a moment to come together, not to promote divisive language that could potentially hurt us politically and economically.

2. Test Early and Often

When it comes to health, in general, we’re witnessing a shift in ideology away from curative to preventative care. In the case of a coronavirus, we’re seeing how effective that approach is in dealing with this pandemic as well. Countries that responded as if they are two weeks further into the epidemic are coming out this more successfully than those who waited. When it comes to a virus, time is not on our side. It can take one to two weeks for a case to go from infection to diagnosis. The incubation period is about five days. The test results take a couple of days. Basic math shows us that testing early is a make-or-break situation.

South Korea

South Korea implemented the most extensive coronavirus testing strategy in the world. They are often conducted at super convenient and efficient drive-through centers. The idea that a woman in the United States had to go back to China to get tested and treated for a coronavirus only goes to show that proactive strategies such as testing are central to understanding how the virus is spreading and treating people as soon as possible. That was the key, according to South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, behind their low fatality rate.

3. Contact Tracing

This might set off some privacy violation alarms, but contact tracing means treating every infected person as the starting point of a mini-investigation. Health care workers trace back through all the person’s most recent contacts. They target those people, find and test them, and if necessary quarantine them. A handful of countries are listening to this coronavirus lesson.

Hong Kong and South Korea have used this technique with success. Singapore, in particular, implemented this strategy early on with stunning results. Citizens go out without masks on, and schools are still running, though protective measures such as social distancing are still in effect. Singapore didn’t focus on society-wide lockdowns, they focused on contact tracing, which allowed them to treat not only the person who came through the door but the network of people around them as well.

Then, health care workers broadcast the details of infected patients and their movements, which keeps everyone in the loop. By doing that, they incentivize communities to quarantine themselves as the infection moves.

4. Isolate Individuals

Bruce Aylward, the assistant director-general of the World Health Organization went to China to understand how China got its catastrophic situation under control. China discovered that transmissions occur within families.

“75 to 80 percent of all clusters are in families,” Aylward told the New York Times.

Chinese officials were then able to strengthen their containment plan to include aggressive isolating individuals even from their own families. In Wuhan, the epicenter of this coronavirus, China initially struggled to contain the situation even though they isolated the community. What they found to be more effective was quickly identifying individuals and isolating them and their close contacts.

5. Expensive Health Care Does Not Help

In an epidemic, it is imperative that we all work together. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough health care workers or equipment to track what’s going on. The public plays a crucial role in the success and failure of a containment strategy. In countries that have universal health care or at least health care that is subsidized by the government, we see more people willing to come forward and get tested. The infected individuals received full treatment for free.

Unfortunately, in the United States, health care is so expensive. Thus, its citizens tend to avoid going to the doctor or hospital unless “necessary.” In the case of this coronavirus, people could be carriers without symptoms, which is a fact alone that drives back an earlier point about the importance of aggressive and early testing. Regardless, the health care system in the United States has hindered the speed with which we can respond to a public health crisis.

6. Wartime Mobilization

China re-directed its workforce to combat the virus. They reassigned delivery workers to contact tracing and highway workers took patients’ temperatures, for example. In South Korea, they focused on public-private partnerships with similar success. The government allowed the private sector to do what it does best–which is to produce the necessary supplies quickly. In Taiwan, the government agency responsible for testing organized a large network of private doctors and labs.

7. Better Safe than Sorry

A new study used computer modeling to evaluate what would have happened if authorities moved faster in China. If they had implemented the same plan a week earlier, they would have reduced infections by 66%. If they had taken emergency measures three weeks earlier, they would have prevented 95% of infections.

In Taiwan, they imposed an epidemic-level lockdown before the epidemic even hit their country. They acted weeks before other governments even believed that the virus would spread beyond China. In proximity, Taiwan is closer to China that Europe or the United States. However, they’ve been hardly affected. Right now, in New York City, for example, NY Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio clash over what to do. Should NYC go into Shelter in place or not?

Western countries have a big lesson to learn on this one. Italy is one prime example of the consequences of waiting. It ended up imposing similar measures but not until they were facing a giant crisis. Italy’s coronavirus lessons teach us that it’s not about the number of cases. A country can have a well-funded health care system, but unprepared, it cannot handle the number of ill people coming through their doors. Studies have come out of Italy proving that cities that imposed rules immediately such as social distancing saw a lower infection rate.

It’s not about turning something into a crisis before it is. However, in the case of infectious diseases, we see in the countries that implemented emergency measures before it became an emergency are already in a more stable position than those that did not.

8. Aggressive Testing. Not Waiting for People to Come in Sick.

People are carrying the virus and do not know it. Aggressive testing means not waiting for people to show up sick, but testing in order to stay ahead of the curve. In Vò, a small town near Venice, a team of experts went in to test all 3,300 residents, sometimes multiple times. 1.5 percent of the population were asymptomatic carriers. This helped us understand how the virus travels so quickly and widely.

9. Poverty and Inequality

Societies with greater wealth inequality are more at risk of infection. The relationship between wealth and health inequality can be seen in many European countries with nationalized health care systems. Thus, this lesson has less to do with private vs public health care systems than it does with the ability for people to access health care, or how wealth inequality affects one’s health.

For example, chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are higher among poorer populations. As we have come to understand, this coronavirus is particularly dangerous for people suffering from those conditions. Those who are less affluent are less likely to be able to take off time from work or get access to care.

10. Not the Time For Secrecy or Fighting

In general, the countries that downplayed the virus or tried to cover it up did not help anyone. We still don’t fully understand the extent of the outbreak in Iran, but the “shame” or whatever the incentive is to cover-up the reality of the situation does not help the world work on this crisis together – since we’re in it together, nor does it aide those working to collect necessary data so that we can keep learning the coronavirus lessons. The trade war between China and the United States and the economic sanctions on Iran spearheaded by the U.S., some of which target the health care sector, did not facilitate clean and clear communication lines.

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