Preparing for the next pandemicExperts are set to talk about strategies that worked and policies that stuttered during this pandemic.
In the early days of Covid-19, as scientists around the world scrambled to decode the 'mystery' virus, misinformation spread faster than the disease. In WhatsApp messages, our uncles and aunts shared how Chinese labs hatched the disease or how the disease was a billionaires’ ploy to earn money. We also received news of instant cures—even when vaccine and medicine trials had not started anywhere. As people burned 5G towers across Europe, we sat with raised eyebrows. While these baseless rumours or crazy conspiracy theories should bring chuckles, they harmed people. In many areas, people drank sanitisers and tried different methods of cure that cost them their lives. In many countries, health misinformation was combined with xenophobia; minorities became convenient scapegoats for government failures.
As the upper class zoomed their way out of the intense lockdown, poor people starved everywhere, including in Nepal, affecting the marginalised communities the most. The economic lockdown eviscerated the little savings poor people had, and led to starvation afterwards. As multiple miseries piled on top of each other, worsening mental health led to terrifying suicide statistics in the country.
When the next highly transmissible novel disease arrives, we will run through the same iteration we ran through this pandemic: panic buying, some heavy mass measures such as lockdown, economic stagnancy, and a host of other ripple effects. Some epidemics may be deadly and uncontrollable. They will cost more lives and pigeonhole us in our rooms for years. Covid-19 has already eviscerated a year's worth of life, and we are already forgetting part of pre-Covid life, with researchers saying how we may have developed mild cognitive impairment. The pandemic is still in its dawn, and the researchers have yet to study how the pandemic has changed us in totality. Chances are that future pandemics will be more devastating in their impact than the present one.
The current pandemic has caused broad damage. In the early days, the lockdown stunted people’s mobility, affecting those in need of medicine and treatment services. Elderly individuals in need of dialysis were not able to travel from their villages to the cities because of the lockdown and the fear of contracting the virus, exposing age-sensitive risks and revealing our system’s inequities. As limited health resources were funnelled into the treatment of the novel disease, other health projects (such as measles vaccination) received a push back. These risked people with other underlying conditions, slowing our journeys to sustainable health development goals.
This pandemic has also taught us how the disease has little regard for manmade political boundaries. As the world becomes more connected with air travel, future diseases will come to Nepal overnight by plane. The episode highlights the importance of alertness and coordination with foreign governments and global health agencies to nip diseases in the bud before their spread.
In the pandemic, the role of the media cannot be understated. Last year, traditional media houses received major blows from the pandemic, which forced many to shut down or downsize their newsrooms. Journalists were not able to report from the ground, making it difficult to understand the news in skin and bones. This prevented people from understanding the struggles of families with Covid-19, prompting people to be dismissive of the disease and flout safety measures.
During the same time, far-away social media companies and their disputable algorithms dictated what appeared on our timelines, amplifying misinformation, and in many cases, renewing xenophobia towards minorities. Some media houses, understanding their responsibilities, devoted a section to Covid-19 and tried to bust the myth with the evolving knowledge on the disease. However, the grandiosity of the pandemic also left much to be desired. Lack of enough data analysts in the media (and in the bureaucracy) ensured we did not receive the news beyond descriptive statistics, impeding the impetus towards the formulation of targeted and effective policies.
In this pandemic, countries with high GDP per capita and perceived institutional robustness failed, whereas countries with moderate and low per capita income seemed to tide over the disease. This explains that other confounding variables, besides wealth, affect health outcomes. East Asian nations with institutional memory to combat previous corona diseases and pandemics were better prepared. Because people had gone through them, they knew of the measures and took seriously the precise advice of their respective governments.
The pandemic raises big questions. Do we have the capabilities to keep future unnamed diseases at bay, or when they arrive, deal with them without incurring much loss? Do we now have a pandemic playbook with details explaining what each institution will do when we face a highly transmissible disease? Do we have tools to combat the avalanche of misinformation that are characteristic of such times? What long-term policies and programmes can we have in place to ensure few comorbidities in our citizens? Covid-19 has forced us to reckon with these questions.
Reimagine health policies
The Nepal Health Conclave is set to raise these and many other questions on April 6. Various experts from different fields such as public health, international development, medicine, media and the government will rub shoulders and talk about strategies that worked and policies that stuttered during the Covid-19 pandemic. They will sit together to reimagine a set of health policies that are congruent with evolving international policies, practices and knowledge.
The conclave will feature four sessions—Health Literacy: Agenda for All, Covid-19 and SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), Deconstructing Health Policies, and The Role of Mainstream Media for Healthier Nepal. In these sessions, experts will talk about various issues some of which will examine health illiteracy in the social media age, list challenges to the SDGs because of Covid-19, contribute to the ongoing debate on reforming health policies in the federal context, and discuss the role of media to strengthen the public health system.
This conclave may not produce concrete solutions at the end of the day. But what it will do, we hope, is stir much-needed conversation on the policies, roles and responsibilities of various agencies and institutions that determine the mass health of the country. We hope the added momentum will lead to meaningful policy changes at various levels. When we weather away this pandemic and await the next, I hope we will have robust institutions to fight against novel diseases.