What govts can and should do
Published on: Sunday, March 29, 2020
By: John Wilson
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The Coid-19 pandemic will exacerbate existing humanitarian crises and impact vulnerable populations in profound ways. If unchecked, in the weeks to come, it could easily be the biggest existential threat we’ve faced since the Spanish flu of 1920. Going forward, any set of actions we take today will have consequences and will be equally eternalized in history in the years to come. I’m not an expert by any means but I thought I would take some time today and write an op-ed on how I think governments the world over should rise to the occasion in resolving this contagion.

At the Leadership level: This virus has found governments flat footed and without a playbook on how to handle a crisis of this nature save for a few countries like Singapore and Taiwan who took lessons during the 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak. 

Thusly, governments need to quickly harmonize their leadership from the classic top-down approach to a more decentralized one where the local/ state governments co-operate laterally with the federal government. 

For example, the mayor of Kuala Lumpur should be able to make decisions based on data models and information pertaining to his jurisdiction and not wait for a federal directive from the Minister of Health. Sooner begun is sooner done.

 The earlier the authorities are able to make clear-cut decisions, the better it will be in the long run. One could argue that centralized leadership is the reason why the infection numbers in the US are high since state governments were waiting for the federal government to issue a directive. 

At the Medical level: Unchecked, the R0 of Coid-19 is between 2 and 3, meaning that every infected person infects, on average, two to three others. This exponential equation in epidemiology could easily prove to be an existential threat if it goes unchecked. 

To address this, governments should be expeditious in setting up nationwide decentralized health command centres in order to ramp up both the screening and testing process. These command centres should also be technologically equipped with real-time data sharing channels that will be used both for strategic planning and resource allocation. From a research perspective, any headway made in terms of the genetic sequencing, mapping as well as the lessons that each government learns along the way should be readily shared across a tertiary decentralized platform that is accessible to all countries. 

In the long term, a global microbe registry running on the block-chain network will also need to be created. This infallible registry should serve as a one stop shop for tracking diseases as well as serving as an all-inclusive place holder for the latest breakthroughs in the medical field. Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. It’s probably about time the medical field borrows a leaf from the software industry and make sure it will be open source so that we are better prepared for the next pandemic. 

At the Social level: Despite the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that we need social distancing in order to flatten the curve, there’s still a high degree of oblivion in several countries. We’ve all seen the extent to which a number of developing countries had to go in order to drive this message home. 

Thusly, given the current readiness of the infrastructure and its inherent real-time nature, mobile phone connectivity could come full circle. Governments should readily proceed in earnest to leverage all mobile phone network operators by accruing their cell phone data which should be used to sequence the movement patterns of people. 

Data is arguably the new oil so this measure will go a long way in assisting governments to achieve strategic objectives such as knowing beforehand where to deploy utilities such as health screening officers, police roadblocks and even the military reserve should the need to enforce movement control orders with greater efficiency arise. 

Internationally, in the months to come, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) should look into ways and means of integrating Big Data technology in the collective effort of analysing the migratory movement patterns of people both domestically and internationally with greater accuracy.

At the Economic level: Given that capital markets, hard currencies and large parts of the economy have taken a dive due to a drop in productivity, restrictions on labour and a partial shutdown of the tourism industry, governments should consider significantly increasing their collective budget allocations for their financial year (FY2020) and the corresponding deficit in order to protect the not only households but also the public sector. 

This measure should include but is not limited to a reduction in interest rates and an initiated acquisition of government bonds to encourage the capital market. In affluent economies, there could be provisions by the government to pay citizens who won’t be able to work during this lockdown period a small amount in order to curb systemic layoffs that are bound to come about in the weeks ahead.

At the Industry level: A characteristic trait that has emerged following this outbreak is the fact most patients in one way or the other are developing acute respiratory distress syndrome once the virus has metamorphosed. As the spread takes its course, this inherently means that hospitals will be in need of more ventilator machines to cope with the spike in the number of cases.

 Desperate times indeed call for desperate measures and therefore governments should pass immediate executive orders that will ensure Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) companies reconfigure their factory lines to start manufacturing as many ventilators as they can. 

Equally, companies that are accustomed to the manufacture of alcohol & spirits should start churning out a 100ml bottle of hand sanitizer for each litre of alcohol they produce. 

At the Information level: Research shows that information has a positive effect on the public’s capacity to cope with threats in times of emergency. Knowledge helps people by giving them a greater feeling of control. 

Given the advent of fake news, governments should strive to find a balance between the flood of information that overwhelms the public and the credible information that can strengthen the public’s sense of control. In an ideal scenario, this can be achieved by actually using AI bots that are trained to both purge and pinpoint information in its early tracks that is deemed deceptive. 

Winston Churchill once said that one should never let a good crisis go to waste. Governments should use this crunch to readily enact strict information dissemination by-laws that ensure citizens who spread fake news face the consequences of their actions.

At the Periscope level: I feel that every government should create a new ministry. Drumroll… wait for it, the “ministry of the future” - this new ministry will run in tandem with the government of the day but with a mind-set of the future. Think vision 2030, 2050 and so on. 

Aside from this special ministry having touchpoints with all other areas of government, it will also be tasked with modelling and running simulations on calamities such as Coid-19, earthquakes or even alien attacks should our Martian cousins decide to pay us a visit. 

In principle, this will also be the only ministry that won’t be affected with a new election meaning it will partly be tasked with ensuring continuity of ‘classified strategic government initiatives and plans’. In all, optimal handling of this pandemic demands a combined strategy that will foster containment as well as promote social resilience in equal measure. Stay safe!

- Wilson is a software development Manager based in Kuala Lumpur. He can be reached at (irewilson@gmail.com)

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