The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 has tested our world like never before. Long before we got here though, we were warned about our unpreparedness. In a 2015 talk, Bill Gates said “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war. Not missiles, but microbes.”
This year, governments and citizens around the world have been faced with a communication crisis. How do we quickly communicate accurate information to keep ahead of the virus? The US Centers for Disease Control has stressed the need for credible, correct, and timely information.
In response to the outbreak, many countries have closed their borders and chosen to look inward for help and information. Governments have had to face not only a lack of knowledge about a new disease but also changing communication patterns. With new technology, fewer people are getting their news from papers and more are relying on streaming videos. Health policymakers have had to find a way forward to minimize mortality and avoid overwhelming healthcare systems, all while keeping the economy afloat.
Many governments have sadly come up short. From the US White House minimizing the risks of the virus early on, to the UK allowing politics to get in the way of information dissemination. There is now evidence that China concealed the existence of SARS-CoV-2, robbing other nations of valuable time to prepare.
In stark contrast to governments’ response is the world-wide mobilization and cooperation of scientists. Organizations like WHO and The United Nations have set up international collaborations to solve this pandemic. As one New York Times writer aptly stated, “While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history.”
Around the world, scientists from all areas of research have banded together to work on solving SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Setting aside personal and professional gain, scientists are making their findings publicly available so that we can continue to advance toward new testing and treatments. A wonderful example of this is the finding that animals are susceptible to the virus. When researchers at the University of Pittsburgh made this discovery, they shared it worldwide within two hours on a conference call set up by WHO.
It is time for scientists and governments to band together to face this pandemic. Utilizing technology, scientists can help governments by becoming spokespersons, ensuring that accurate information and not political agendas take top priority. At a time when many are understandably afraid, information can provide much needed reassurance and let the public know what they can do to protect themselves and others. As science and health communicators, it is our job to take complex information and break it down to a level where everyone can understand it. Places like NPR are creating comics for kids to help them understand the virus and how to stay safe. The UN is encouraging governments to embrace digital communication strategies that allow for quick implementation and dissemination.
Today, there are over 3 million cases and 200,000 deaths from SARS-CoV-2. Working together, governments and health experts can help bring an end to this pandemic, and hopefully leave us all better prepared for the future as well.