Covid-19 is a new virus. Its high transmission rate and rapid exponential growth make its effects particularly serious. We are seeing how, in country after country, this is now far more than a public health issue. Politicians everywhere are having to balance their responses to the health consequences of Covid-19 with the needs of their economies and societies. The interactions are complex and can be highly contextual as differences in the strength of the economy, the age of the population and local health systems and society all interact. People and businesses are hurting and fearful for the future.
There are many lessons from countries where the disease appeared early in the pandemic, but global leaders also need to be aware of the global context. It is right that we scrutinise our leaders’ actions, but it is right because we all need to learn quickly, and to improve our responses. In such a rapidly evolving situation it is far too early to judge what has worked and what has not. What is critical is that we develop our actions fast in response to new information.
We need to focus our attention forward to get ahead of this pandemic. If we don’t, there could be serious consequences for social welfare and stability, and for people’s livelihoods. It is vital that we choose strategies that make the best use of the time we have gained by locking down two billion people in about 40 countries.
We know from what we have learned about this pandemic in China, South Korea and Singapore, that exiting lockdown is not straightforward. We will see repeated new outbreaks of the disease in areas we thought were clear. Each subsequent infection will need a rigorous approach to testing, tracing and response.
This will require us to have in place public health responses that allow us to react rapidly to fresh outbreaks. We must hone our ability to identify cases through quick access to testing. We must have systems for quickly tracing contacts and testing them. We must ensure high observance of isolation.
We need to support people in our communities whose lives are compromised by these measures. This is not simply about financial support. We need to ensure social support is available for the elderly and those needing frequent care. The outpouring of support we heard as people came to their windows to clap our NHS staff and carers must be translated into activity that will allow us to weather the coming challenges.
So our focus must be on ensuring that we understand as best we can the emerging information that comes to us in the months and years ahead. At some point, we may look back and wish we had chosen a different path. But for now, speed and solidarity based on what we are learning are more important than chasing perfection. If we want to reduce the effect of subsequent infections, we need to be fast, well connected and sensitive to the collective struggles of billions of people rather than apportioning blame. Most of all, we must ensure that what we do leaves us with no regrets.
David Nabarro is co-director of the Imperial College Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London, and one of six special envoys of the WHO director general on Covid-19