Thoughts amid the COVID-19 outbreak

by Maria Antoniou

Addressing a growing pandemic requires a new mindset; one that involves swift action and preparation at the core of the problem.

March 11, 2020: the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic, within a few months’ time from late December 2019, when the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Wuhan province, China – the emerging region of the virus. Day by day, we witnessed global operations struggling to adjust to a new normal. Governments resorted to extraordinary measures to cope up with the crisis and ‘flatten the curve’ of the disease outbreak. People’s movement was limited under strict lockdowns, airports closed, businesses, universities and schools ceased on-site operations, resulting in a dramatic drop in economic activity.

As the virus spread across Europe, many feared that Greece could be next into an uncontrollable crisis after Italy or Spain. With a weakened health care system stemming from the decade-long financial crisis and one of the oldest populations in the European Union, Greece was seen as a particularly vulnerable target to the disease. However, the number of reported deaths and people in intensive care due to the virus in Greece remained very small compared to many other European countries. According to analysts, the key to Greece’s success was the government’s early steps to contain the virus ahead of most of Europe, having already witnessed the alarming situation in Italy. In late February, before even having recorded a virus-related death, Greece carnival parades were cancelled. On March 10, schools and universities ceased on-site operations. Three days later, bars, cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, gyms, malls, cinemas, retail stores, museums and archaeological sites were also shuttered. The government used the lockdown to increase healthcare capacity, growing the number of available ICU beds. The state moved quickly exactly because of the condition of its public healthcare system and the strict measures seem to be paying off.

During the lockdown period, Greeks across the country – similarly to many people around the world – strived to achieve balance in this new reality. Observing the situation with a sense of optimism, it seems that the imperative to communicate during such difficult times led individuals and businesses to new ways to connect. People learned how to operate remotely in an effective way and in many occasions at a far greater speed. Such practices could definitely stick around even after the ease of lockdown measures, allowing for better management and more flexible work environments. We adopted, and we seemed to manage it quite nicely.

We should not, however, overlook the greater picture. The world stepped into this pandemic largely unprepared. Some countries coped better due to faster restrictive measures, some did not. But in order to build the ability to absorb such a shock and bounce back stronger, rapid shutdowns of everyday operations cannot be the sole answer. As Bryan Walsh correctly pointed out in his article ‘Covid-19: The history of pandemics’ at BBC Future, ‘When the virus arrived among us, our only effective response was to shut down society and turn off the assembly line of global capitalism. Minus the text alerts, the videoconferencing and the Netflix, what we were doing wasn’t that different from what our ancestors might have tried to halt an outbreak of the plague. The result has been chemotherapy for the global economy’. We should know better than the era of the plague, however, and the current situation teaches us some lessons that could be of help, in order to constructively revisit our future actions.  Addressing a growing pandemic requires a new mindset; one that involves swift action and preparation at the core of the problem. In the case of a pandemic, a strong public health system along with informed guidance from the state to the people to raise awareness would be the best guarantors of effective response and recovery from a virus outbreak.

Paraphrasing the above, pretty much the same would hold true in the case of an extreme natural event. Effective disaster management strategies heavily rely upon agile infrastructure: early warning systems, a newly built environment based on informed codes and standards, and preventive maintenance to reduce the physical vulnerability of existing infrastructure elements. All aforementioned practices, along with proper communication systems for safe evacuation and proper state guidance, including risk awareness and preparedness training for communities, would go a long way into averting a post-disaster crisis.

The apparent correlation between pandemics and natural hazard risks was identified by many, as the COVID-19 outbreak went on and many communities around the world appeared unprepared to tackle the situation. Both representing physical shocks followed by a number of socioeconomic impacts, they can only be remedied by understanding and addressing the underlying physical causes [1]. They are nonlinear in nature, as their impact grows disproportionally once certain thresholds are exceeded, e.g. hospital capacity to treat pandemic patients, or water storage capacity of wash infrastructure during a flood. Certainly, they can no longer be identified as “black swan” events, with scientists consistently warning against both over the years and their rate of occurrence alarmingly increasing within the past century. Droughts, hurricanes, fires and floods for example, are getting more intense as the climate warms. And unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak seems to be indicating that the world may be unprepared to respond effectively to either a pandemic or a natural catastrophe.

An important point to be made here, is that with the right preparations, the risk stemming out of those events can be drastically reduced. And there is a large number of successful adaptation cases worldwide. Bangladesh, for example, a developing country with a history of devastating floods, has been preparing for cyclones since the 1970s, when Cyclone Bhola hit the country causing 300,000 deaths. Building early warning systems, shelters, stronger houses, and raising civic awareness, the country has managed to gradually decrease the number of lives lost during each subsequent cyclone event, resulting in only 5 deaths during Cyclone Fani in 2019.

Within the last 20 years, vulnerable states across the globe have made important investments in community preparedness, protection measures and disaster risk management strategies. As a result, as recent studies indicate, the relative risk of a person losing his/her life during a natural disaster is globally decreasing [2], especially in the developed world. However, even for natural hazards that do not hold the nonstationary and systemic character of a pandemic (i.e. probabilities of occurrence are not rapidly shifting and their impact is rather concentrated than expansive across the globe), recent events such as the 2017 Puebla earthquake in Mexico or the 2015 Nepal earthquake highlight that there is still much work to be done. To make matters worse, much of the existing global infrastructure is reaching its life span, while governments struggle to secure investments in an effort to close the maintenance funding gap. The economic impact from earthquakes is still there – largely arising from damage to aging critical infrastructure elements.

On top of that, alerting questions on what would happen if a natural disaster occurred in the midst of a global pandemic arise. What if critical elements of a transportation network fail due to earthquake during a lockdown situation? The recent earthquake event at Zagreb, Croatia, while the city was under coronavirus lockdown, confirms that these are not just speculations. Canada is already preparing contingency plans for the possibility of a wildfire or flood striking in the context of COVID-19, as the wildfire season begins and spring weather is threatening regions of central and eastern Canada with flooding. Emergency preparedness experts caution that the ongoing risk of the novel coronavirus will alter disaster response for years to come, and the possibility of interdependency between the two risks raises even higher concerns.

Here lies exactly the importance of ongoing work by the scientific community. Observing a world that seeks to achieve balance within this difficult new normality, and with a possibly lengthy global economic downturn delivered by the coronavirus pandemic, it seems that our work needs to become more intensive than ever. The infrastructure funding gaps that may emerge from the current focus on COVID-19 recession, call for innovative and cost-efficient solutions. Emergency disaster preparedness will always be in need of low-cost mitigation measures, whether these refer to rapidly-built 3D-printed ventilators in a pandemic outbreak, or retrofitting solutions for critical infrastructure elements during an earthquake. The INSPIRE network aims exactly at this direction, by incorporating scientific and technological breakthroughs within the broad concept of meta-materials. Our goal? To propose and implement novel soil-foundation-structure concepts for the efficient seismic protection of transportation infrastructure elements, targeting among others at low-cost seismic isolation applications for existing bridges.

Being uncertain and unsettling, this new epoch questions our notion of resilience in a much interdependent world and at the same time presents a big global challenge to be solved in order to secure long-term prosperity – but scientists were made for challenges, isn’t that right?

[1] ‘Addressing climate change in a post-pandemic world’, McKinsey report, 2020

[2] Formetta, G., & Feyen, L. (2019). Empirical evidence of declining global vulnerability to climate-related hazards. Global Environmental Change, 57, 101920.

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