Opinion: It's time to prepare for the next COVID-19

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Medical personnel construct face shields amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by: Yonhap News Agency / Latin America News Agency / Reuters

As the world grapples with COVID-19, chaos seems to be the only common denominator in the response of businesses, governments, and individuals. Many lessons will be learned once the infection is brought under control. But clearly investing in outbreak preparedness must become a top global public health priority.

We can’t say we weren’t warned. Over the past two decades, severe acute respiratory syndrome, swine flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome, Zika, and Ebola have all inflicted immense damage on people and economies. Following each epidemic, we saw a short-term surge in interest around long-term preparedness. Yet as a global community we remain incapable of responding to crises like COVID-19.

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The U.S. is actively recruiting foreign medical professionals and expediting their visas. While brain drain is nothing new, this op-ed argues that encouraging front-line workers to leave vulnerable countries during a pandemic is not only unethical but also incredibly harmful.

The World Health Organization examines about 7,000 disease outbreak signals every month, which means another killer virus is always potentially on the horizon. But the cruel irony of COVID-19 is that after a decade of business investments in risk assessment, climate adaptability, and workplace safety, corporate leaders now find themselves scrambling to throw together makeshift plans to deal with the pandemic.

While many CEOs and chief human resources officers should be commended for staying calm in the current storm, most companies do not have contingency plans in place for maintaining operations and effective communications during a health crisis that could last months.

Shortages of hand sanitizer and inadequate infrastructure cleaning policies are just the tip of the iceberg. Even the most prepared companies are now improvising how to establish consistent work-from-home strategies at a time when millions of workers around the world will be asked — or required — to self-quarantine for weeks or longer. A comprehensive plan for businesses and corporations with their headquarters in low- and middle-income countries, and elsewhere, must encompass all aspects of operational preparedness — from managing investors and monitoring supply chains to implementing appropriate internal and external communications strategies.

Beyond preparedness, businesses must also put health at the center of their operations and sustainability planning. A recent report reveals that only 4% of Fortune 500 businesses have identified any health-related objectives, compared to 55% with emission reduction goals. And only 6% of organizations outside pharmaceutical and health care felt the need to develop a health strategy.

In other words, even before COVID-19, companies were largely ignoring looming health questions every part of the world faces. While corporations have transformed their workplaces to appeal to millennial and Gen Z workers, the fast-approaching crisis of Alzheimer’s disease — which already costs the global economy $1 trillion every year — has received little attention.

Despite boardroom talk about risk assessment, most companies have no idea how they will accommodate not only older workers struggling with memory issues, but their most high-potential, productive employees who will need to step back from the workplace to fulfill their obligations as caregivers to aging parents.

Businesses have a unique ability to influence large numbers of people because of widespread trust in their brands at a time when public faith in government is low. But this does not mean they bear the sole responsibility.

All stakeholders must work to dramatically improve individual health literacy, which is essential to dealing rationally with health emergencies. Since the current outbreak began, there has been an appalling shortage of science-based information about COVID-19, contributing to rampant fear and anxiety. This has led to unproductive behaviors — from hoarding toilet paper to a proliferation of online scams promising “treatments” for the virus. People from Asia and Italy have experienced a spike in physical and verbal abuse based on the false premise they are somehow responsible for the spread of the virus.

Adequate literacy will help people understand what basic behaviors will help slow down contagion, why social distancing is needed, and why people shouldn’t rush to the health centers at the first suspected symptoms. Media organizations have a special responsibility because careless reporting can ignite dangerous and counterproductive reactions.

A global crisis like COVID-19 has shown once again the central role that governments must play when it comes to preparedness. This includes planning for resilient health systems, through adequate financing, human resourcing, and strong surveillance infrastructure, but also flexibility at the macroeconomic level.

For instance, Italy’s generally well-regarded health care infrastructure could be at risk of collapse unless the epidemic slows down. Or, if we look at LMICs, concerns will arise in countries where resources are constrained when it comes to unveiling fiscal stimulus packages to bolster businesses and communities.

COVID-19 will be managed. Cities will be released from lockdowns. People will return to work and school. Grocery shelves will again be fully stocked with hand sanitizer and toilet paper. But the sooner we understand that these incidents require dramatic improvements in outbreak preparedness, the sooner we will be able to handle them without fear, panic, or massive disruption to our daily lives.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Mario Ottiglio

    Mario Ottiglio is the managing director at the High Lantern Group. He advises businesses, international institutions, and global trade associations on their reputation and sustainability strategies, in particular in the health care and life sciences sectors. Ottiglio also serves as a strategic adviser to many business health-focused coalitions, such as aging, malaria, tuberculosis, psoriasis, and bioelectronics.