Now, after more than two years of living under the effect of the pandemic, we have reached a crossroad. On one hand, "this is the most teachable moment the world has had about the importance of public health in 100 years," said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "On the other hand, we're really at risk of heading full steam ahead into the neglect phase of the 'panic-neglect cycle.' "The panic-neglect cycle is when we underinvest in the public health sector.
The investment in basic and clinical biomedical research allowed us to, with unprecedented speed, develop highly effective vaccines that essentially, (we never would) have imagined you could have done it that quickly," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "We need to keep making those investments, not only in science ... but in the public health infrastructure."
We must also remember "what it means to have a public health system that was not able to respond in a manner that was matching to the challenge that we're facing," he added. "What we don't want is to have our children, and perhaps our grandchildren, forget what we've been through."
The key to ending the cycle of having outbreaks, solving the public health crisis, and starting another one is to apply lessons from the current pandemic. Much of this burden lies in the hands of public health institutions, and the public plays a vital role as well. Here are some pieces of advice from some top infectious disease experts.
1. Increase public health funding
"So we really do need to up our game in terms of protecting people in this country and around the world," said Frieden, who is also CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an independent organization focused on preventing epidemics and cardiovascular disease. "You can't make a safer US without making a safer world."
"It's hard, especially from a funding perspective, to convince people with big pocketbooks ... to say, 'Maybe it might happen, maybe it won't, but we do need to put billions of dollars in that arena,'" said Kizzmekia Corbett, an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said at Life Itself.
"Because of that, oftentimes a lot of the research dollars and a lot of the research mental capacity goes to the side of treatments," Corbett added. "We want to be able to really shift that way of thinking."
More funding is also needed for covid testing in special times, so that we don’t fall back into the same cycle again and again. More investment in global health is needed, too. The WHO budget for more than 200 countries all over the world is even lower than those of some large US cities, and public health crises are never too local. Combating the pandemic in one area requires the strength of the global health system.
2. Improve public health communication
“We have better tools to address infectious diseases than we've ever had, but we're also more vulnerable than we've ever been, partly because of a widespread lack of trust between communities, governments and health care systems”, Frieden said.
"The CDC literally wrote the book on public health communication in an emergency: Be first, be right, be credible, be empathetic, give people practical, proven things to do to protect themselves, their families (and) their communities," Frieden said. "Unfortunately, that hasn't been implemented (in the US), either by the prior administration or by this one. And we have suffered for that.""You cannot surge trust in an emergency," Frieden added. "You have to have it there as baseline."
“Communication about the pandemic has ‘been challenging’”, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, at Life Itself. "We've been divided against a common foe, which has been this pandemic virus." "We have had to make decisions with imperfect data and imperfect times, but if we didn't make a decision at that time, that would have been a decision itself," she added. "We need to follow and understand the best science that we have at the time the decision is being made."
Dr. Walensky plans to take further action to spread the public awareness a more essential part of pandemic surveillance.
"You have to be consistent, always stick with the facts and the evidence and the data. That was one of the issues that obviously arose when I was part of the Coronavirus taskforce in the prior administration," Fauci said.
3. Fight misinformation
"It's been very challenging for health, for doctors and others to deal with viral misinformation, which spreads even faster than Omicron," Frieden said.
With the prevalence of social media and the Internet in general, the influence of pandemic misinformation is enhanced. This kind of misinformation can influence the public’s motivations, belief, decision-making concerning their health and so much more. The Internet, however, can be an effective channel to spread credible, timely information on public health as well, spreading news from responsible health organizations and keeping people informed.
Keeping the people around us informed with the right information and confronting them about their misleading social media posts can still be a long way to go, but a worthy one to keep them safe and sound.