“The failure to prepare could allow the next epidemic to be dramatically more devastating.” – Bill Gates, TED2015
Over the last decade, the planet has dealt with several virus outbreaks viz. H1N1 (Swine Flu), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Ebola. These viruses turned out to be deadly with high fatality rates, but were probably not as devastating as the Spanish Flu. While the world, largely, has been free from the above-mentioned virus outbreaks, countries such as Congo are still dealing with Ebola as a national health emergency. And this year, mankind witnessed the deadliest of outbreaks in the form of COVID-19. As per the World Health Organization (WHO) records, the first set of cases were reported in Wuhan, China on 31st December 2019. Subsequently, China announced the disease to be novel corona virus, a respiratory syndrome closely related to the SARS 2002-03. Before long, the virus spread to nearly every country. So far, an estimated 3.8 million people have been affected and 270,000 patients are reported dead, and the numbers are increasing day by day.
Corona continues to spread and impact millions of people across the world, as countries find ways to tackle it. The rate at which the virus spread in China, Iran, Italy, Spain and the US shows how underprepared the world has been in addressing any pandemic. Germany and South Korea, on the other hand, showed the world that when testing is done on a large scale, chances of people with few or no symptoms are identified thus increasing the number of known cases. On the economic front, the virus severely impacted economies with most bearing the brunt of lockdowns. It may take some time to get a deeper insight into the impact on industries across the globe. The healthcare industry, however, is at the centre of the crisis.
When a virus outbreak occurs, it exposes gaps in the global healthcare infrastructure and capabilities to handle such crisis. On one hand, healthcare organisations are challenged to manage an overwhelming number of patients with lack of facilities and necessary equipment. At risk are millions of frontline health workers dedicated to serve the ever-increasing patients, and it is critical to safeguard the frontline staff physically and psychologically. On the other hand, social distancing and other measures have disrupted business continuity pushing out-patient visits and surgeries with exceptions for emergencies. Delay in returning to normalcy can impair the ability to manage their establishments.
In order for healthcare institutions to swiftly respond to a global health emergency there needs to be a strengthening of emergency management capabilities, improved technology adoption in patient management, and redesigning facilities to create dedicated space for isolation in case of a virus outbreak. Better partnerships between governments and healthcare organisations could pave the way for building sustainable health infrastructure and disease surveillance systems. The solution to facing any epidemic is to anticipate potential outbreak, identify the evolution of disease and raise public awareness to contain and prevent loss of lives across the globe.
COVID-19 has shown us that developed countries are not immune to virus outbreak. When public health services across countries are bolstered to respond to emergencies, the world becomes well-equipped to protect lives and minimise fatalities. The cover story of this issue showcases articles focused on dealing with health epidemics. They offer insights around technology deployment for managing infections, redesigning hospital emergency facilities, developing robust disaster management capabilities to containment of outbreaks through effective public health measures.