While one should never consider a possible public health pandemic or human suffering as a good thing, the recent public concern about the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has provided us with some positive lessons on risk communications and public health management. While COVID-19 will not in all likelihood be the global pandemic health officials have been preparing us for, it has proven to be a useful “practice run”.
While I suspect this article may be too soon for those feeding from the lucrative trough of alarmism and the need to compulsively resort to precautionary measures, there have been many valuable learnings from this one-month public health exercise.
Here are the Risk-Monger’s Top Ten Good Things about COVID-19.
1. Increased public awareness on hygiene
“Regularly wash your hands … well.” … “Avoid touching objects like door handles, handrails, money, buttons and other people’s mobile phones.” … “Shaking hands is as good as a French kiss.” … These are things I regularly remind people but now with the public focus on COVID-19, the message is getting out there loud and clear. If we adopted these practices and worked on better infrastructure (safer stairs, easier doors…), public health would increase remarkably and hospitals would free up significant space during flu seasons.
2. Face masks are becoming commonplace, even fashionable
I spent a good part of the early “outbreak weeks” in South-East Asia and I was impressed at how quickly the public donned face masks. Even young children were proudly showing off their designer Disney masks. (I wanted to find the bad-ass black face masks but they were sold out.) Now the reality is that only a certain type of tight-fitting mask reduces exposure risks (when combined with protective eye gear and surgical gloves) but face masks are still quite valuable in preventing the person from spreading viruses onto others. Coming back to Belgium where face masks are seen as anti-social, I looked in horror as people coughed and sneezed (and then shook hands). If Europeans could learn anything from Asians, it would be to be more considerate about infecting their neighbours. If fear of COVID-19 increases the use of face masks in Europe, that would be a good thing.
3. The WHO gets real-time risk communications training
The World Health Organization has had a horrible record on risk communications. SARS was an absolute debacle and Ebola resorted into a regrettable blame-game. This time around, I must admit, they are getting much better. The WHO avoided ringing the alarm bells too early; have been transparent in sharing information from their meetings; they have contextualised the risk from COVID-19 compared to common strains of influenza; and have suffixed most of their press interventions with quick reminders on basic hygiene efforts to reduce transmission risks.
The WHO info-graphics are clear and timely and they have been providing daily COVID-19 press briefings. See how the WHO Executive Director for Emergency Programmes, Michael Ryan, uses all the right risk-com phrases to contain an alarmist-hungry journalist. It is rare for me to commend the WHO but I bow in respect to Dr Ryan in particular!
4. People are reminded how deadly the flu is
While a couple thousand deaths in China can seem frightening, news of the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to remind ourselves of how many people actually die every year from the common strains of influenza. In the US, the CDC estimates the present flu season to have killed between 14,000 to 36,000 Americans (until 8 February). 2020 is forecast to be far lower than the 2017-18 flu season which took over 60,000 lives in the US. With this information, more Americans will likely get flu vaccines next year (when there will probably be a COVID-19 vaccine as well). While the present outbreak in China is showing mortality rates of around 2% (mostly among the elderly and those with pre-existing illnesses), COVID-19 appears to pale in comparison to SARS (9.6% mortality) and MERS (34%).
5. Anti-vaxx opportunists and conspiracy theorists get outed
Naturopath-watchers like The Risk-Monger were curious to see how the public fear of COVID-19 might interrupt the anti-vaxx message. An early claim, that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created this coronavirus strain to increase vaccine sales, failed to gain traction even among the activists. Alternative medicines to treat the virus, like the Silver Solution (that “Totally eliminate it. Kills it, deactivates it.“), have been ridiculed rather than embraced. As public fear of the risks escalates and news of progress on a vaccine increases, the middle-ground audience the anti-vaxxers had been playing for is returning to reason, science and the authorities.
6. Social media is stepping up to confront ridiculous alarmism
In January, when I started reading reports on a SARS-like virus detected in China, I thought to myself: “Oh dear“. Not because of the inability of our health systems to cope, but because of the evolution in social media-based alarmism and the break-down in journalism ethics since 2003. Where SARS carried an over-reaction from traditional media sources, today’s age of fake-news opportunism, closed tribes and the rise of death-cult gurus suggested to me that facts wouldn’t have a chance this time around. My fears were unfounded. Few people were doing science communications in the early 2000s and today the sceptics have been quick to dispel the opportunists and fear-mongers. Furthermore, the big search and social media companies have quickly stepped up and their content moderators are taking down hoaxes, isolating the alarmists and opportunists, prioritising credible sites in searches and warning readers to seek reliable information from sites like the WHO.
7. Activists are awkwardly confronted with the public service of Big Pharma
When global pandemic scares create mass vulnerability, there is a call to trust. People search for solutions they can trust from reliable sources. The naturopath industry excels at providing medicine for the healthy, food for full bellies and answers for the ignorant. Naturopath gurus are not very good at providing solutions in times of crisis. Big Pharma has been providing solutions to those in need for more than a century while suffering relentless activist attacks by the healthy and the privileged (those evidently not in need). The fear of COVID-19 leading to widespread deaths and disruption has created a large-scale need. Big Pharma hasn’t changed to attract the positive public support; rather, the public has changed, growing hungry for a solution. Like the HIV crisis in the 1980s, the first pharmaceutical companies to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine will be treated as heroes (at least until the public grows fat and unconcerned again).
8. Global pandemic crisis networks show their effectiveness
I am impressed with how well the global health emergency system kicked in (compared to SARS, Zika and Ebola crises). COVID-19 was identified and tracked back to the wet-market source a day after detection (in the middle of flu season in China). Once it was clear it could be transmitted from human to human, a city of 11 million people was effectively quarantined and the virus largely contained. More impressive was the speed in identifying and tracking super-spreaders. Take the case of a British businessman who picked up the virus at a Singapore hotel before infecting other UK nationals in a French ski resort. Authorities were able to follow other infections from him to Spain. As social media tools grow, tracking movements of super-spreaders will become easier (although privacy issues are a concern).
9. Anti-Chinese rhetoric exposed for its racism and prejudice
The anti-Asian bigotry from liberals in Western countries is embarrassing at best. China has been remarkably transparent, fast-acting and determined to keep a potential pandemic under control, shutting down large cities, effectively cancelling the Chinese New Year and taking an enormous hit to its economy. This is unprecedented. As numbers of new COVID-19 cases outside of the virus source, Wuhan, are presently declining, the Chinese authorities should be commended for their disciplined crisis mitigation. Instead the media are filled with quips like: “You can’t trust Chinese authorities and their data” or “The Chinese government denied free speech that delayed containment measures“. Asians living in western countries have suffered so much prejudice that they have turned to satire to deal with the racism.
10. Precautionistas put their dramatic over-reactions on display
I have argued since time immemorial that those obsessed with the precautionary principle have no solution to any problem other than to cut and run and deny potential benefits to populations. In the midst of a crisis this may make sense, but cancelling the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was a knee-jerk reaction by people who seem incapable of risk management. Now the precautionistas are talking about cancelling the Tokyo Olympics. Why not prepare a public hygiene strategy, pursue research on vaccines and accept that the benefits from sport and wellness matter. In the end, we see cowardly policy-makers with only one policy tool in the face of a limited uncertainty: Run! The more our leaders cry “Wolf!” for something less of an issue than what the flu season throws at us, the less credibility they will have.
There are many other reasons to celebrate how risk managers have handled this present crisis (more budget for preventative health care, rapid adoption of new technologies, a decline in chemophobia …). In any crisis comes opportunities, and COVID-19, during a brief moment in 2020, has provided just that. While I suspect many of my trolls will attack me on the basis of my headline alone (they admit they can rarely read more than a meme), there are still those in this social media Age of Stupid capable of acting responsibly, and that is perhaps the best learning from this crisis.