In the last week, the urgency to prevent a further outbreak of Covid-19 – generally known as the Coronavirus – has increased massively, with there now being the closure of all pubs, restaurants and cafes, apart from takeaway services. But now the following question is circulating the media: Why were we not better prepared?
It has come to people’s attention that a corona-like virus outbreak had been predicted by a couple of different sources a few years back. Bill Gates, founder of the Microsoft organisation, spoke in a TED talk in 2015, claiming that the next global catastrophe would not be a nuclear attack, it would be an ‘influenza virus’ that would kill over ten million people.
Then in 2017 there was a nationwide experiment – ‘Contagion’ the BBC Four Pandemic – led by TV presenter, mathematician and author, Hannah Fry. The experiment predicted a pandemic would be caused by a virus, and with the help of the BBC, Cambridge University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Fry was able to gather information from an app that combined GPS, demographic and contact data. Nearly 30,000 citizens across the UK downloaded the app, and the scientists at Cambridge were able to get a better understanding of where people in different age groups would travel to and who they would encounter on a day to day basis, therefore helping them assess how fast and easy it would be for a virus to spread. The outcome was very fast and very easily.
As well as these two predictions, in 2018 at the annual book festival in Hay-On-Wye, University Professor of Global Public Health, Devi Sridhar, made her own predictions,
“The largest threat to the UK population is someone in China who has been infected from an animal, then they get on a plane to the UK. What good is it for the UK to be worried [only] about what’s happening here? It’s about those interconnections across the world. If you want to solve those problems, you can’t do it on a go-alone approach.”
So, why did we not take any of these predictions seriously? Is it because of austerity measures? Or because we have been focussing on political matters such as Brexit, and public concerns over terrorism attacks, or the global issues of climate change. There’s no right answer to what issue should be prioritised, however there certainly are questions around why there was so much confusion from the UK government in its initial response to the current pandemic.
Sridhar tweeted, “It makes me feel nauseous how little action was taken early on. Academic navel-gazing and political in-fighting instead of bold decisive action.”
Just today, information on social media about ‘viral loading’ is the kind of information that would have made a significant difference to public action at the start of this crisis.