Nearly three years after the first case of COVID-19 was discovered and with more than 6 million reported deaths worldwide, many are wondering if it was preventable. If so, will it be possible to prevent the next pandemic on the horizon?
According to the Global Health Security Index, which measures the capacities of 195 countries to prepare for future epidemics and pandemics, no single country is fully prepared.
One of the Index’s top recommendations is for the private sector to partner with governments and for philanthropies and funders to develop new financing mechanisms to prioritise resources. The bottom line? Preventing the next pandemic will require more than just government.
“The perspective of leaving pandemic issues to governments and the health sector alone is a failing strategy,” says Clint Cavanaugh, Palladium Senior Director of Global Health Security. “Though government is necessary for that strategy, it’s not sufficient, and we need the whole of society to step in if we’re going to be fully and adequately prepared.”
He explains that a critical part of a pandemic preparedness strategy will, and must, be an information system, a network used to collect, store, process, analyse, and distribute data, which goes well beyond the scope of government.
But not just any information system.
Much like the whole of society approach, it must be robust and have connectivity that cuts across sectors. “Think of an information system as the connective tissue that ties everyone together. It has to connect across lab and commodity distribution networks, human resource assets, epidemiological burden and trends, but also tie into community event surveillance and climate change analysis.”
But what do data or information systems have to do with preventing a pandemic or major global health event?
In today’s world, data is everywhere and everything, from electronic health records to data on education and agriculture, all the way to commodities, supply chains, and government data. And in our interconnected world, it’s not uncommon for an event in one sector to affect another, making data a critical aspect in understanding those links.
But as Sindri Kinnier, Palladium Senior Manager of Informatics, adds, it’s not enough to have a robust information system in place – there must also be the proper architecture to support and share that data across sectors. “Countries need to be thinking about this now,” she says. “Historically, and not just in health, sectors have their own information system, and often the government departments or partner organisations are collecting the data and holding on to it, with no way to share it.”
But that data flow can’t just happen with only government support; there need to be more players in the mix, notes Cavanaugh.
“For countries to be truly prepared, the information system architecture that shares data must be in place in advance so that countries can actually use it if and when it’s needed,” Kinnier adds. She shares an example from Kenya where her Palladium's Regional Digital Center repurposed the country’s existing HIV information system, which they had supported since 2011, to track COVID-19 infections and respond to local outbreaks. “We were able to get this system up and running within a couple of weeks.”
“This rapid response wouldn’t have been possible, however, if Kenya did not have a relatively mature digital landscape, including an enterprise architecture, which defines how data and systems are structured and how they communicate,” Kinnier explains. “We are currently helping the Ministry of Health to update the architecture for current and future needs because global health security requires more than just reacting to pandemics. We must respond to health system needs now to prepare for and prevent pandemics,” she concludes.
For Cavanaugh, data goes hand-in-hand with technology, and the technology solutions that emerged from addressing COVID-19 only set the stage for future pandemic preparedness. “On the positive side, there are and will continue to be plenty of opportunities to leverage some of the innovations and adaptations that came out of COVID-19 to serve as cornerstones for future preparedness.”
As always, necessity breeds innovation and the past three years have been no different. “Think of all the technology and processes we leapfrogged due to COVID-19,” he notes. “From engaging with communities and working with supply chains for access to commodities, repurposing healthcare staff and providing home delivery of goods, and 24/7 technology solutions that provide real updates into centralised systems, none of these were happening at such a scale before the pandemic.”
“The focus now needs to be on further institutionalising these innovative solutions and leverage these advancements across sectors—from data systems and supply chain systems, to health worker optimisation to digital engagement solutions with populations—to advance our collective global health security agenda,” Cavanaugh adds.
The past two years have shown that when our technology and information systems are set up to innovate and iterate, society is equipped to better meet and tackle today’s challenges.
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