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Applying Lessons from the Ebola Epidemic to Improve Global Health Policy for COVID-19

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

In 2014, Wikistrat conducted a crowdsourced simulation during which nearly 60 experts forecasted 30 scenarios on the development of the West African Ebola (EVD) epidemic. The simulation was designed to study the challenges posed by the EVD outbreak to health policy globally. Through the simulation, analysts proposed both positive and negative outcomes within comprehensive, competing scenario pathways of the epidemic’s spread and termination.

Despite being separate viruses that have different forms of transmission, origin, and symptoms, there are enough similarities that allow us to review some of the geostrategic takeaways on the implications and global health policy regarding EVD that can be applied to prevent a worldwide pandemic of COVID-19. These include:

  • Wealthy countries shift toward self-sufficient markets to better protect themselves from “overseas threats,” and immigration policies become stricter. This sentiment can further radicalize the nationalist and far-right movements.

  • Countries with weak state capacity, with problematic health care systems, crowded areas, and high-density slums are likely to suffer from very high volumes of casualties due to unchecked viral outbreaks. In these countries, border closing is expected to prove to be as lethal as the virus itself, as these countries are incapable of being self-sufficient.

  • Border closings and quarantines pit vulnerable populations against security forces in an interconnected and interdependent region. Goods and people in these situations must move to prevent starvation and total economic collapse, and we are likely to see large groups moving to escape contact with the disease. In such cases, regional coordination is a vital requirement for minimizing casualties.

  • Even if sources are diverted and dedicated to combating the epidemic, they will fall short of what is needed, making it impossible to keep up with the spread. The maximum pressure on these governments will be felt once the middle classes are affected by the economic dislocation, putting more pressure on governments that are unable to respond.

  • In traditional societies, women are at the highest risk as primary caregivers. Women, who traditionally care for the sick, are more likely to come in contact with the virus, especially with the COVID-19 virus that is harder to detect. Moreover, there can be cases where cultural practices and religious traditions clash with essential medical practices, polarizing society, and undermining effecting protection from the virus. Cultural consequences have lasting impacts on security and stability at the local, national, and regional levels.

  • A collaborative private-public partnership between a pharmaceutical firm and international donors represents a radical change in how the provision of goods is discussed. Donors are essential, especially in low capacity regions. One way to stabilize the situation is to prepare local health workers by training them to counsel, screen, identify, and treat those at risk of infection. The international donor community is required to step up their assistance.

  • Low capacity states face an additional challenge to the virus. If these states prove unable to respond effectively to a COVID-19 outbreak, we can expect their legitimacy to erode. In many cases, extremist groups stand ready to seize such opportunities. Therefore, virulent outbreaks must be seen as more than threats to human wealth, but also to national and societal stability.

  • Focusing on sustainable development: the existing global public health response paradigm continually proves to be waiting for the emergence of the outbreak, mobilize a maximized response primarily sponsored by western donors, and once the outbreak subsides, the personnel and resources disappear. This leaves countries and regions vulnerable to further outbreaks as before. There is a need to develop a new paradigm, one that is focused on building a sustainable response capacity in areas at risk of epidemics. Plans must rely on resources that can be maintained and supplied regionally and personnel that can be trained locally. Such a policy would require the collaboration and cooperation of regional and international donors and organizations.

  • Investing in private-public partnerships: pharmaceutical conglomerates represent an untapped resource in the effort to build a sustainable global public health response system. Firms that invest in treatment drugs or vaccines could be brought into planning, resourcing, and implementing sustainable response protocols. This broadens the range of infectious agents that pharmaceutical groups choose to combat.

As seen above, despite being different viruses, epidemics like COVID-19 and EVD profoundly impact policies on multiple government levels differently, depending on capacity and geographical region. In some cases, closing borders can be a way to slow down infection rates, but in others, it can be lethal. The private sector can have a very crucial role, as do international donors, in creating a more sustainable response mechanism. We must not ignore the political, security, and societal impacts that these epidemics have and respond accordingly.

Below is the 2014 report based on a simulation about a global Ebola crisis:

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