By Joshua Anthony, on 23 February 2022
If you missed it, last summer UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) and the Warning Research Centre hosted an online conference exploring Why Warnings Matter. A varied day’s activities full of stimulating discussion with questions from the audience, the IRDR’s 11th Annual Conference has left much to be reflected upon—as well as launching the UCL Warning Research Centre.
This blog is part three of a series presenting the key findings from the conference proceedings. Today we get a glimpse of Dr Oliver Morgan and Dr Gail Carson in conversation with Andrew Revkin, discussing global public health in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The rapporteurs whose notes form this material are Calum MacKay and Simone Phillips, who are both from the University of Glasgow on the MSc Earth Futures Programme. Any mistakes or misrepresentation of the participants’ words are the author’s own.
with Dr Oliver Morgan, WHO, Dr Gail Carson, GOARN,
and Andrew Revkin
Oliver Morgan is the Director of the Health Emergency Information and Risk Assessment Department in the WHO Health Emergencies Program.
Gail Carson is Director of Network Development at the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium.
Andrew Revkin, moderating this session, is an environmental journalist and is the founding director of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
Key points of the session
The session started off with a question being posed to the presenters that asked what was keeping them up at night that was a threat or opportunity that was not being assessed properly. Their main fears were seeing high proportions of disease and death in children alongside the manifestation of under-resourced countries being last in dealing with major risks. The key example of this would be vaccine disparity. A pattern that is consistent across the globe with systems having bias to those who are more capable. Communities that are affected by infectious diseases and other events are often the poorest and most disadvantaged, so they therefore struggle to recover, the impact is long lasting and generational. With COVID-19 we are going to see this in a societal and educational context. Another main challenge is to keep up with a lot of the information that’s been being generated. So, the more we learn, the more interconnected we are, the more information there is about what’s happening in the world. However, in many ways we can get overloaded with that information, and it’s circulating in different media through different communications channels. From this we have to determine what information is of major concern and how to effectively deal with it.
There are so many competing priorities it’s incredibly hard to prioritise action. We need international networks to collaborate effectively so we can be effective at the ground level and listen to local people’s priorities, needs and frustrations to build trust and capacity to recover from events. When working at ground level it is also vital to have teams with people from multiple disciplinary backgrounds. This allows us to take into account all aspects of a community’s needs and generate successful collaboration and coordination.
To achieve this, we also must invest in infrastructure that facilitates transdisciplinary work. Pandemic responses are always difficult as they are typically controlled at a community level all of which are incredibly unique and variable. We must recognise and embrace the diversity of information and peoples’ different circumstances that is gathered from unique public health systems. By combining this information with the use of our social media channels we can shift public health away from an era of traditional surveillance to one that uses and embraces collaborative intelligence. This is where we take information from different parts of our society and different levels of science, to understand what the risks are, and to assess them. By having that engagement upfront, you have a much better way of interacting with your communities when you need to. The lack of community engagement was a huge issue in the UK in its response to COVID-19.
If we’re taking a much more expansive and holistic approach to understanding risk, then our workforce needs to change. We need to value different skill sets, whether they’re from the more community-based skill sets, sciences with a more community-based focus, or whether they’re data science skill sets. One of the grand challenges, therefore, that we now face in public health is that in the contemporary, larger, and interconnected world, we don’t have a contemporary workforce that successfully interacts with all of those different parts of our society. With COVID-19 we can learn some of these lessons, make those investments, and communicate with our governments about what those investments should be. We must think about younger people who are coming into their professional lives, and we need to have a much more broader approach to public health.
We have become sideloaded into specialties in our work. We need to have an interdisciplinary conversation. Collaboration is vital—working together and listening to each other. We need to be better organised to enhance communication and that organisation must be bottom up, middle, and top down. Citizen engagement is therefore key to all of this.
Questions and Answers
If you had an unlimited budget, what two things would you spend on to make things better?
The more open we are with communication and passing information, the more benefits there are. That’s what I would change. I think those benefits far outweigh any perceived disbenefits from open information and I think that it’s not a financial thing, it’s more of a change in our collective mindset that is actually for our collective benefit. Whether that’s in environmental space, or health space or any other space, in the longer term this is going to be much more beneficial for all of us. The global-good view on public health is something that we should really embrace coming out of the pandemic.
I would probably try and pull in the experience on IP [intellectual property] and data rights. Not just IP, but the associated data rights. It would help to make sure that those who are less fortunate than some of us in the West can have access to supplies and treatments. Whether it’s accessing therapeutics or vaccines etc. a lot quicker. Obviously, there are issues with the manufacturing capability and all the supply chain issues that have to go with that. But if I was to choose one thing it would be for the lower middle income countries securing IP and data rights.
Are you guys excited about the future of public health due to the increased interest from governments due to COVID-19 or do you think it’s a false dawn?
It is hugely exciting and very promising looking forward. There has been a huge increase in public health literacy. Citizen science is a vital positive step, that pushes all of us to engage in issues in a much better way.
Next up and the final blog of this series is the second panel discussion from the conference proceedings: Warnings for Organisations. Subscribe to be in the know!
Don’t forget, last time we presented the keynote speech from Mami Mizutori, the Assistant Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).
Watch the full conference on youtube here!
Conference Rapporteurs: Simone Phillips and Calum Mackay
Conference Convener: Dr. Carina Fearnley
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