Learning lessons is a matter of life and death

13 May 2020

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If there are any small mercies to be taken from the global coronavirus pandemic it is that when it came, we knew what to expect.

 

The benefit of living in a knowledge-based society is that we can learn from the past and from the experiences of others. That is the foundation of scientific discovery.

 

So why, when we saw the devastating impact that Covid-19 had on China, Italy and Spain, were we in the UK so ill-prepared for the virus when it struck?

 

Why, when we saw the positive examples set by countries with progressive testing regimes, like Taiwan, South Korea, Iceland and Germany, did we not follow suit?

 

Why do we as a country, which is at the forefront of finding a pharmacological solution to the virus, now boast the third highest death date in the world from Covid-19?

 

Part of the answer may lie in our collective reluctance to learn from others. We are sometimes guilty of believing that we know best. Perhaps our status as an island nation convinces us that we’re a special case; that normal rules don’t apply and that we’re best placed to find the right solution for our problems.

 

That may be the case in some circumstances, but the coronavirus is a global problem that requires a global solution.

 

Learning and applying the lessons of others now is more than a question of national pride, it’s a matter of life and death. Here are some of those lessons.

 

  1. Be prepared: Applying hard-learned lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2003, Taiwan established a Central Epidemic Command Centre that was activated on January 20, a day before the island confirmed its first Covid-19 case. With its authority already established, the centre was able to implement stringent measures without being delayed by political procedures.

 

  1. Act quickly: Within days of China reporting the outbreak, Taiwan started testing passengers on flights from Wuhan for fever and pneumonia symptoms. A week after its first case, the island’s began electronic monitoring of quarantined individuals via government-issued cell phones and announced travel and entry restrictions. With only 329 cases confirmed, it imposed strict social distancing measures. Boris Johnston waited until there were 3000 cases and 353 people dead before implementing similar measures in the UK.

 

  1. Be aggressive: Iceland's response to the coronavirus was meticulous and quick. From the first case its government was aggressive in detecting and diagnosing individuals, putting them into isolation and using police and healthcare workers to trace everyone with whom they had been in contact. In a public-private partnership between the National University Hospital of Iceland and biotech company deCODE Genetics, Iceland designed tests early.

 

  1. Prevention: The country’s National Police Commissioner declared a state of emergency on March 6. Universities and junior colleges were closed on March 13 and three days later and banned gatherings of more than 100 people were banned. On March 19, all Icelandic residents that entered the country were required to go into 14 days of quarantine, regardless of where they were traveling from. Iceland’s first death was not reported until March 24.         

 

  1. Test, Test and Test again: Since South Korea’s first Covid-19 patient was confirmed, it installed more than 500 screening clinics across the country. It has also been innovative in how it tests, establishing drive-thru booths across the country. South Korea was also quick to move, implementing quarantining and screening measures for people arriving from Wuhan on January 3, more than two weeks before the country's first infection was confirmed.

 

  1. Learn from the past: South Korea was caught off guard by the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2015, when it recorded 186 cases and 38 deaths, making it the worst-impacted country outside the Middle East. So the political will needed to enforce measures during the coronavirus outbreak wasn't a problem and there was good coordination between the central government and the provinces.

 

  1. Keep testing as restrictions ease:  Germany devised a test for the coronavirus and prepared many kits early, well before the country even reported its first death. Its death toll has remained relatively low in part because the coronavirus trickled into the country mostly in young people. Authorities were able to test people returning to Germany from these ski resorts and trace their contacts for testing too.

 

  1. Build capacity at hospitals: Germany has more than 147,000 beds, ten times the number it needs. The US has around 94,000 beds, around 15,000 short of its peak need. Germany's health system has such a large capacity, its hospitals were able to treat patients for coronavirus from Italy, Spain and France. Authorities have been able to get people with even moderate symptoms to hospital well before their conditions deteriorate, leading some experts to consider whether treating people early, getting them on ventilators before their condition worsens, for example, improves their chances for survival.

 

 

Eddie Finnigan is Managing Director of Two Rivers Recruitment.

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