Last Friday, the World Health Organization declared an end to the global emergency status of COVID-19. This week, the United States will end its emergency declaration. From the official perspective, the crisis is over. Therefore, shouldn’t we be able to relax and put infectious diseases on the back burner for a while?
The short answer is no. We need to monitor outbreaks of COVID-19 and other pathogens, even when things appear quiet. Here’s why: It only takes a few short weeks with the right biorisk to go from nothing to a full-blown crisis.
So why don’t we get regular official updates?
With infectious disease outbreaks, no news may mean that authorities are trying to get a handle on an active outbreak before releasing information. They know that severe epidemics and pandemics can drive social unrest, so leaders want to have plans in place before announcing severe outbreaks.
We also know that political leaders face disincentives to report and disclose true pathogen spread in their midst. These disincentives come in the form of economic consequences, political tolls, community anxiety, potential restrictions of liberties, educational impacts, and in some at-risk regions, even food security.
When authorities delay reporting an outbreak, it puts enterprise risk managers at a serious disadvantage. Chief security officers can be blindsided when sudden reports of widespread disease hit the news. It is much better to have an early warning and the ability to track an outbreak’s spread and severity as it truly evolves, rather than waiting for official announcements that may be delayed or intentionally downplayed.
What happens when no news is bad news?
Unfortunately, global examples of “no news equals bad news” abound for outbreaks. Most recently, after initial announcements that the deadly Marburg virus had surfaced in Equatorial Guinea, neither officials from the country nor the World Health Organization updated the status of the disease’s spread for over a month from the middle of February to late March.
On March 22, WHO finally announced that the virus had been detected in three widely spaced provinces with eight confirmed deaths. The news, however, had been delayed. Officials in Equatorial Guinea had waited nine days to report some of the positive test results they had collected – days that could have been spent preventing the spread of the disease.
Then on March 29, the WHO director general specifically called out Equatorial Guinea for not reporting cases that WHO knew had been confirmed. Country officials then reported four additional cases. The delays prompt speculation about how many other cases have gone unreported.
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, China was widely criticized for downplaying the severity of the epidemic there, and it took videos of doors being welded shut to keep ill persons isolated and images of overburdened crematoriums in Wuhan province to alert the world to the severity of the crisis. Those tracking the United States’ pandemic response certainly recall statements from 2020 that COVID was, “just like the flu,” or that it would magically go away. Meanwhile some parts of the U.S. government were estimating potential deaths would surge over a million, which, sadly, has happened.
This tendency to downplay infectious disease is not new. Eerily similar responses to what we have witnessed during COVID-19 arose during the world’s most infamous pandemic, the 1918 flu. This flu killed up to 5% of the world’s population in a horrific two-week period during its spread. The U.S. President in 1918, Woodrow Wilson, did not even make public statements about the disease until it was raging widely, preferring to keep the focus on the US war effort in WW I.
On the other hand, when a country excels at reporting vital information promptly on a pathogen in their midst, they can suffer economically, politically and socially for that accurate information. South Africa did an outstanding job characterizing and describing early cases of the Omicron variant in their midst (which actually originated in other countries before spreading to South Africa).
When South Africa announced it to the world in November 2021, however, they suffered flight restrictions, travel bans and other measures that had adverse economic impacts. The South African currency value plummeted in international trading, and travel-related stocks fell drastically. South African residents weren’t allowed to travel internationally.
The global community should have responded to South Africa positively for sharing this key information early and developed a collaborative response to it. Timely information, shared globally, about outbreak evolution and pathogens is what we need to create effective responses to the threats posed by pandemics.
In order to create actionable information for enterprise security officers, PHC leverages its broad network of traditional and non-traditional data sources to secure early information on emerging pathogens. Then, our team of experts curate the information and craft guidance for our customers, even when the silence from official updates can be deafening. PHC works to keep information flowing so that these silent periods don’t increase the stakes for enterprise companies. Not knowing what is coming can be deadly. Instead, with advance warning and expert guidance, risk managers can create mitigation strategies and prepare their enterprises and workforces for change. Their time, and yours, is better spent initiating preparedness efforts than waiting for the next official update that may not come.