"How prepared are global institutions to deal with a health emergency?"
Toward the end of the 20th century, as the Cold War was coming to a close, globalization became the operating norm. Opening up societies, expanding trade and people-to-people contacts was de-rigueur.
But while the transition to a brand new world with boundless opportunities for growth and development became fast and fashionable, the same brought in its wake a host of new issues and concerns. Coping with these became as much a challenge to governments, businesses and, of course, peoples.
It is in this context that the Johns Hopkins Center for For Health Security hosted efforts to prepare and check whether the world can respond to threats of global magnitude specially in the health sector. It proposed solutions on how we can and should respond to such threats.
The last and fourth in a series of such exercises was done by the Center on October 15, 2019 together with representatives from the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and was named Event 201.
That it was done was just two months before the COVID-19 outbreak was reported has engendered a number of theories, many false and conspiratorial, about its provenance and its impact on international preparedness and cooperation in the face of a pandemic.
As reported publicly in the Center’s website and publications such as Wikipedia, in the earlier exercises beginning with Operation Dark Winter in 2001 the idea was always to challenge institutional preparedness in the event a health outbreak sets in. The capability of senior-level US officials would be tested.
The exercise was about a covert and widespread small pox attack on the United States “involving initially localized attacks in Oklahoma City with additional attack cases in Georgia and Pennsylvania then designed to spiral out of control.”
The contingency created was meant to test “the weaknesses of the US health care infrastructure and its inability to handle such a threat, as well as its effectiveness in addressing the widespread panic engendered by the many difficulties in providing the American public with the necessary information regarding safety guidelines.”
On the other hand, Atlantic Storm which was mounted in 2005 and also about a small pox bio terrorist incident, was meant to “reveal the state of international preparedness and possible political and public health issues that might evolve from such a crisis.” In that scenario, small pox was covertly released in the following major cities: Istanbul, Rotterdam, Warsaw, Frankfurt, New York Ciy and Los Angeles. Cases were then reported in Germany, Turkey, Sweden and the Netherlands but transAtlantic transmission happened hours after which “forced the attending representatives to grapple with a quickly escalating crisis and revealed difficult tensions between domestic politics and international relations propelled by continual briefings from a ‘Summit Staff,’ breaking news segments from a ‘Global News Network’ and private updates from their ‘national advisors.’ The scenario assumed that the viral ingredients were obtained from a bio weapons facility in Russia; to spread the virus, members walked around public areas with canisters releasing virus in high-traffic areas.”
The third exercise, Clade X, done in 2018, moved along the same patterns as the first two but this time was meant to identify and clarify long term policy commitments which will strengthen preparedness and mitigate risk.
And then, Event 201 set in which further enhanced the need for a full, comprehensive and internationally applicable and, more importantly, acceptable response to a global health crisis.
There is no question that these simulation exercises on global health issues have resulted in a number of coordinated efforts in response to such eventualities. How each and every country, public and private institutions, as well as international organizations dedicated to respond to such issues is now being tested with this COVID-19 outbreak.
Most participants and even those who were not able to attend but watched it as well noted that the exercise was a worthwhile, if not uplifting, experience. Whether the lessons learned from this and the earlier exercises could now be put in place in as proper and fast a manner as possible remains to be seen.
These insights as well as country responses have all been summed up in a Global Health Index published by the World Health Organization (WHO). The index grades each and every country’s preparedness to respond to any such outbreaks and the international plan to contain the same.
A seven-point response plan has been put forward. It recommends, among others, the need for countries to enhance capabilities by way of medical supplies stockpiling; education and training of health workers and first responders; issuance of protocols on public health systems; maintenance of travel and trade for countries and global transportation companies; and proper risk communication to provide reliable information quickly, accurately and without fueling panic. As in all cases, cooperation and discipline remain the key factors in ensuring the safety of peoples and communities.
Perhaps what we should equally guard against, not just the outbreak of a real killer disease, is the pandemic of xenophobia.