Fighting two viruses at once: why a global crisis needs a global response

“Fear and misinformation are two of the biggest challenges we must overcome. We cannot allow them to go viral.” That was the opening line of the UN’s creative brief, an open call to creatives all over the world to help get the word out about the current health crisis with COVID-19. 

The fact that the world’s largest intergovernmental organization is sounding the alarm in this way should serve as proof — misinformation is itself contagious and potentially deadly. 

As a global population, we have never been more dependent on the need for global knowledge transfer. The faster we learn and respond to information from other parts of the world, the more lives can be saved. Incidentally, we have also never been as prepared to connect on a global scale and share that knowledge. To that end, earlier this week we introduced our COVID-19 Expert Helpdesk, a resource for companies and governments that need immediate access to trusted experts that can help during this crisis

Experts like Dr. Dennis Carroll, a molecular biochemist and past Director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Emerging Threats Division. He currently serves as Director of the Global Virome Project, a global cooperative scientific initiative that aims to massively lower risk of harm from future viral outbreaks over 10 years. Dr. Carroll predicted a viral outbreak was coming and is sympathetic to the effects of viruses, having been witness to several viral outbreaks around the world.

How global knowledge transfer has already saved lives

One of the biggest concerns about COVID-19 in any given country is the ability of the local health care system to handle the cases that require hospitalization. Experts in some affected countries, especially those with experience fighting viruses, were quick to institute measures of social distancing, contact tracing, selective or mass-testing, and other actions that have proven effective in containing the spread and isolating cases. The jurisdictions or countries that have followed that advice are the ones who are “flattening the curve” and preventing their health care systems from being overwhelmed, enabling them to avoid having to make difficult choices about which patients will have access to ventilators.

“Ebola can be an excellent model for this,” says Dr. Maureen Miller, an expert in infectious disease, epidemiology, and medical anthropology. “During the outbreak, and even afterward, there were hand-washing stations placed at the entrance of every building. Little infrastructure changes like that can make a big impact on people’s behaviors and the effectiveness of education and messaging.” Indeed, in countries like Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan that have experience with viruses like H1NI and SARS, the response was swift and effective.

The importance of good intel from trusted sources

Meanwhile, countries slow to react are experiencing an acceleration of cases. Consult any epidemiological model that you like and the message is clear: every day counts and expertise, especially from experienced professionals in the know, is a major factor in the handling of the crisis. “One of the main failures with the US response to coronavirus has been the approach to testing, which has made it even more difficult to identify and track people who have contracted the virus,” Dr. Miller claims. “This was part of a policy failure, trying to keep the testing centralized with the CDC. But another challenge has been the procurement and supply of test kits themselves.”

A key problem with misinformation is that it’s amplified by our behavioral response. “People do not react in alignment to the reality of the risk,” says Dr. Sweta Chakraborthy, an expert on our COVID-19 Helpdesk, who specializes in risk and behavioral science. “They consistently over or under-react, and policies based on public reactions—as opposed to real risk—result in policymaking not entrenched in data, but in public perceptions. Understanding and anticipating real risks versus human behavioral responses is helpful and mandatory in preparing for a pandemic because once a risk like an infectious disease emerges, any efforts to learn on the fly will give way to appeasing public fears.”

The sharing of good information meanwhile, especially across borders and networks, can accelerate innovation. David Milestone has experience and knowledge in strategic innovations and global health. He has seen how collaborative reactions like innovation challenges can result in quick solutions to crises. “We found that these were especially useful during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks several years ago,” says David. The way we can share knowledge, globally, has already led to the kind of innovation that can save many lives in the coming months. “I think the fact that we’re now able to develop and test and commercialize a vaccine in a year and a half is absolutely incredible. That process used to take decades, and so just from a drug development and vaccine development standpoint, we are far ahead of where we’ve been in the past.”

Help for organizations in “the new normal” 

“What’s going on now is the world has changed. Some of that change is temporary, but a lot of it is permanent,” says Ross Mayfield, another expert on our Helpdesk. There are a lot of people and companies sharing advice about remote work, but few with the expertise of Ross, who has been leading distributed teams for over 18 years. “I think it would be a disservice to your own business people to try to say this is an exercise we have to run for two or three weeks,” says Ross. “To prepare people for a long term change, it’s going to take months, if not years, for things to return back to anything close to what it was.”

Dr. Sabine Marx works as Senior Trainer for Post-Disaster Economic Recovery at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. She says it’s time to consult experts and take advantage of knowledge on reducing response times. “The communication of the science around coronavirus and COVID-19, the needed behavior changes, the organizational changes, policy design, and design of other interventions including the stimulus package. All of these can benefit from the insights we have gained in the social and decision sciences and humanities,” says Dr. Marx

Experts You Can Trust in a Time of Uncertainty

With so much at stake, in a time when every day counts, sourcing expertise can prove challenging and time-consuming. At OnFrontiers, we find ourselves uniquely positioned to help, by applying our research and vetting process to experts in fields that are vital right now — things like transmission and containment, public and private sector collaborations, and understanding how to communicate risk to the public. 

If you’d like to share your experience with organizations urgently responding to the pandemic, apply now to join the Helpdesk as an Expert. Or if you’d like to tap the experience of our Helpdesk experts, contact our team to request access.