It's been well over a year since the first case of Covid-19 was detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei province. The virus has so far killed close to 1.75 million people and has infected more than 79 million around the world. Governments and regulatory bodies are scrambling to fast-track vaccines to save their vulnerable citizens. But the pandemic is far from over, we still have a long way to go to get over the line. Recently, reports are stating that the virus has mutated, resulting in a new strain that is even more contagious (Gallagher, 2020). Originating from London, United Kingdom, cases with a similar strain have been reported in Denmark, France, Italy, South Africa, and many more countries. In South Africa, the mutation is similar but the variant is different. Countries are closing their borders and tougher restrictions are being imposed by governments.
The stark reality is that we're just unable to get over the tidal wave of infections and it is gradually getting the better of us. Although it’s been just 9 months since all of it started, the battle against the pandemic has been long, excruciating, and never-ending. Apart from the pandemic fatigue that has set in, some of us are suffering from aggravated symptoms of mental health conditions due to a lack of movement, absence of support, and prolonged isolation. However, we need to see the light at the end of the tunnel and we need to be patient if we want our normal lives back.
As we come to the end of 2020, we must look back, reflect on the year that was, and develop a sense of gratitude for what we have. At the same time, it is very important to assess the havoc caused by the virus across the globe. Its unprecedented impact on education, healthcare, vital supply chains, and economies in general forces us to be better prepared for the next epidemic. In line with this, December 27 of every year is being marked as the “International Day for Epidemic Preparedness”. This comes after the United Nations (UN) called upon all 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to be well prepared for future epidemics and strengthen their response to any sort of health crisis in the future.
Impact of COVID-19 on education
The impact of COVID-19 on education was severe, to say the least. Abrupt school closures by governments to curb the spread of the virus disrupted conventional education, forcing students to adapt to alternative methods of learning. By the second week of April 2020, 1.58 billion children and youth, from pre-primary to higher education, in 200 countries were impacted severely as a result of the pandemic. This represents as much as 94% of learners worldwide (Policy Brief: Education during COVID-19 and beyond, 2020).
Loss of conventional education has led to an absence of a stimulating, enriching environment and in a few cases, even adequate nutrition. As a consequence, this will result in atomistic development in children.
The rise of E-learning
If there's something good that's come out of this, then it has to be the rapid response towards the adoption of virtual learning tools to facilitate digital sessions. Research suggests that e-learning can increase retention and even consume less time thereby proving that it's not just a makeshift alternative but a solution here to stay well after the pandemic is over (Lalani, 2020). Even pre-pandemic, society was growing increasingly receptive towards e-learning and the use of technology for education (Lalani, 2020). In 2019 alone, there was $18.66 billion worth of investments in the global education technology space. In 2025, that number is projected to reach $350 billion. Students have made optimal use of video conferencing applications for their virtual sessions, interactive learning software, e-books and language apps and are predicted to use them well after the pandemic ends.
The role of online learning platforms
Online learning platforms have also chipped in by offering some of their services for free. BYJU's is one of them. Based out of Bangalore, India, BYJUs is the world's most valued ed-tech company (Raghunathan, September). Once school closures and lockdowns were announced in India, BYJUs, launched an initiative to provide free classes for primary and secondary class students through its intrinsically designed Think and Learn app (Lalani, 2020). In Wuhan, a few thousand miles away from Bangalore, something similar took place in mid-February 2020. The Chinese government instructed 25 million students to continue their learning via online platforms, in what was dubbed as the largest online movement in the history of education. The Tencent classroom was an instant hit among students and teachers (Lalani, 2020). Alibaba, a Chinese E-commerce giant wasn't too far in the race, it launched its distance learning solution called Dingtalk (CHOU, 2020). The influx of users was so high that Alibaba cloud had just two hours to deploy more than 100,000 new cloud servers to support large scale work (Lalani, 2020). However, there are quite a few roadblocks that are hampering e-learning. What are they?
Challenges of e-learning
Not having reliable access to the internet or the right digital learning tools may prevent everyone from participating digitally. In underprivileged countries, E-learning may not be possible at all. Even in privileged countries, lower-income families may not be able to provide their children with the tools required to participate virtually (Lalani, 2020). Another cause for concern is, how safe are these virtual learning tools? Numerous incidents of privacy breaches and cyberattacks have been reported globally (Ward, 2020). With teenagers and children being easy targets for hackers, not enough has been done to ensure online safety. In a post-pandemic world, although students are going to return to conventional schooling, the hybrid model of education i.e. a combination of conventional and e-learning is here to stay. Ensuring it's safe while all of us use it is going to be a major challenge. But what about the future of learning, what's it going to look like?
The future of education
Major world events like the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2008 global economic meltdown, the 9/11 attacks in New York, and many more have always been a point of inflection for us. It's these major world events that spark innovation and completely change the way we do certain things. Education is sure to be one of them. The hybrid model of education is fast emerging and experts believe that it is going to be extremely beneficial to us shortly. Infact, many of them are already reaping the benefits of the hybrid model. However, a few experts have expressed concern with regards to online learning. They feel that the haphazard and unplanned move towards online learning with an absence of training, insufficient bandwidth, poor user experience with little preparation can be unconducive to sustained growth. To reap the maximum benefits of online learning, there needs to be a great structure. Instead of just making use of video capabilities, educators must make the best out of a range of interactive learning tools that promote personalisation, inclusion, and intelligence.
The changing narrative
There are a lot of questions arising whether rote learning and the traditional education system is still valid in today's day and age. Many believe that with the advent of the internet and the fast-paced world we live in, traditional academic skills may be outdated. Yuval Noah Harari a Lebanese scholar in his book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” states why “rote learning” is outdated. Yuval, emphasises on the importance of crucial life skills such as “critical thinking” and “adaptability” (Lalani, 2020). He firmly believes that it's these skills that will be extremely vital for success in the future. While some worry that the haphazard transition to online learning might have greatly hindered this goal, it is important we embed this into our future hybrid model of education.
Just like how education is a basic necessity, so is healthcare. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) stresses on the importance of providing reliable and affordable healthcare. This can be achieved only through building strong healthcare systems. The assembly also expresses deep concern about the current lack of international cooperation and multilateralism to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. In the likelihood of an epidemic in the future, without international collaboration and attention, humanity’s sufferings might worsen.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect millions and kill several thousand, the immediate focus of the healthcare system is to save lives and ensure speedy recovery of those affected by the virus. However, what we must also consider is the indirect impact the virus has on society and the danger that is lurking in the background.
Experts are constantly sounding alarm bells of severe "medical collateral damage" as several patients are not receiving the same standard of medical care before the pandemic gripped the world (Covid-19: Impact on healthcare, 2020). Let's read on to find out how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted the healthcare industry.
What should governments across the world focus on?
The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMG) a recently formed joint organisation by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Bank came out with its first report in September of 2019 (A world at risk, September 2019). The report titled "A world at risk" carried a clear message that the world was at the brink of facing a major health crisis which would in itself be a human catastrophe. Soon, the emergence of the coronavirus was proved that the report was true. We did not pay heed to it and here we are facing the consequences of our ignorance. In September 2020, GPMG released another report titled "A world in disorder" (A World in Disorder, September 2020). The report describes the critical assessment of the global COVID-19 response and urged the world to be better prepared for the next pandemic.
GPMB was created with the sole intention to highlight to global leaders and individuals the importance of being prepared and developing a rapid response for future health emergencies.
The GPMB report "A world in disorder" suggests the below to mitigate the impact of future epidemics (A World in Disorder, September 2020).
1. Proactive leadership - We’re all seeing what proactive leadership amidst a pandemic can do. It can lessen the damage being caused to social and economic life and save more lives. Prime Ministers, Presidents, national leaders must collaborate with healthcare providers, pharmaceutical companies, and various other interested parties to ensure the right measures are taken. These measures can be devised by referring to the actions taken during previous health emergencies. Leaders must stay away from politicizing such matters and ascertain their priorities towards ensuring public health and control of the disease.
2. Citizen participation and involvement – No matter what measures the governments take, without citizen involvement, participation, and cooperation, not a lot can be done. But for involvement from citizens, accountability and transparency must be at the heart of their response towards an emergency. In its absence, citizens must demand it. Responsible citizens must also take personal responsibility and initiative to create awareness amongst their communities and neighborhoods. In addition, science-based authentic messaging towards the masses through the use of technology and social media should be adopted to reduce the spread of rumors and misinformation.
3. Building solid healthcare infrastructure to ensure health security – Solid healthcare infrastructure is key to fighting any health emergency. Mobilizing health workers and securing might be a challenge. However, through coordination, research, involving financial institutions, the private sector, national and international health organizations can definitely minimize the impact.
4. Adequate investment to prevent and prepare – For governments, it easily takes up to a few billion dollars of expenditure to prevent health crises and be fully prepared to deal with epidemics. However, the return on investments far outweighs the few billion dollars of expenditure. Hence, leaders of respective nations must step up and engage in conversation with various international and private institutions to ensure sustainable financing to prevent and be fully prepared for a future epidemic.
5. Global cooperation and creation of international health regulations – If we need to defeat the disease, then we all must stand together united. Any disease knows no borders and its existence even in the remotest corners of the world means a threat to the global population. Keeping this in mind, leaders must come together to establish international health regulations and agree upon standard measures and responses towards fighting an epidemic. Further, the active involvement of organizations such as the WHO and the UN in the creation of these guidelines can help us all emerge stronger from the next epidemics.
The COVID-19 crisis has placed the world at a very critical juncture. It has also shown us that international cooperation and joining hands with others can soften the impact of the pandemic through coordinated efforts based on individual expertise and skills. Let's try and understand how international cooperation can help us in preparing for the next big pandemic.
Importance of international cooperation and multilateralism
The COVID-19 crisis is an alarming call for multilateralism and international cooperation, which has been absent so far. International cooperation is not just useful but it is indispensable. Containing, countering, and eliminating a virus of this sort requires a co-operative, transparent, science-based global response. Shutting down borders and adopting protectionist policies heed no good. After all the virus knows no borders. Below are a few ways international cooperation could help in overcoming the next epidemic.
Global cooperation to ensure sufficient medical equipment – Healthcare workers are at the heart when it comes to fighting epidemics such as COVID-19. At the same time, it is very critical to ensure they're safe while providing medical care to infected patients. Therefore, the medical workers must have sufficient medical supplies, right from Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to swabs to carry relevant tests. However, amidst the pandemic, we saw an acute shortage of medical supplies. Supply failed to meet exceeding demand. This forced countries to ban exports to meet domestic demand. Banning exports could hinder global efforts to tackle the virus along with artificial price rise, meaning poorer countries would not be able to put up an effective response. In the likelihood of an epidemic in the future, governments should work together to ensure free trade of crucial supplies of medical goods, at affordable prices. The presence of these medical goods will help countries put up a reasonable fight against the disease. Protectionist policies should cease to exist.
Coordinated efforts for vaccine development and deployment - A vaccine is the world's best bet to get rid of any pandemic. However, vaccines will be effective only when it is available at affordable prices everywhere. This means that countries should cooperate rather than compete to ensure speedy development and efficient distribution. Similarly, bidding wars for vaccines must be avoided at all costs. In addition to this manufacturing facilities should be set up, as the research and development of the vaccine take place parallelly. Lastly, an international allocation system for the fair distribution of vaccines must be agreed upon beforehand. This will successfully ensure that the vulnerable population in each and every country is protected from the virus.
Constant scrutiny and monitoring to prevent virus resurgence – Continuous joint efforts must be made to prevent virus resurgence. This includes monitoring of the mutated virus strains. In the early days of the COVID-19 virus, before it was declared an epidemic, little efforts were made to contain the virus. This was mainly due to insufficient information and ambiguity surrounding the virus. Most of us were also oblivious and dismissed it thinking it would never each of us. WHO states that if we need to assess the progression of the pandemic, we must share information continuously, rapidly, widely, and freely across borders (Levine, 2020). However, there do exist barricades such as misrepresented data and an absence of standard methodologies. Clear guidance and international standards are required to overcome these roadblocks. Digital technologies should also be made use of such as smartphones and apps for tracking and tracing, this will ensure effective disease surveillance and control.
Continuous and strong support for lesser developed countries - The virus will have a more severe impact on lesser developed and developing nations when compared to the developed ones. Broken healthcare systems, funding shortages, and medical health worker shortages are just a few of the problems that poorer nations have to grapple with. Information/knowledge sharing about protocols of screening and treatment can be of immense help for lesser developed nations. Countries that have a headstart in dealing with the pandemic can play a crucial role here. Additionally, containment measures (closure of schools and offices) and other pandemic related movement restrictions will be hard to implement given the economic fallout and rising poverty that will arise as a consequence. The presence of a large number of informal workers means that governments will find it difficult to offer them social protection. Therefore, along with knowledge sharing fiscal support must also be extended by developed nations and various other organizations.
COVID-19 is an existential threat that has changed the way we live our lives forever. In the absence of international cooperation and multilateralism, recovery and elimination of the virus is going to be slow. Coordinated disease surveillance, quick and effective vaccine development and deployment will all benefit under multilateralism action.
While the COVID-19 crisis has wreaked havoc across the world, we must look at this as an opportunity to introduce strong reform. In the healthcare and education space, technology will play a crucial role. If utilized appropriately, its impact can be profound and far-reaching. However, the threats that arise out of them must also be curtailed for its widespread utilization. For governments, the pandemic is a wake-up call to stop pursuing the path of panic and neglect for it always leads to catastrophe and devastation. Smart governments will seize the opportunity and recognize the vulnerable souls in our interconnected, crowded, and environmentally stressed planet before making use of humanity's intelligence to devise solutions. With regards to international cooperation and multilateralism, we must understand that the presence of a virus on this planet is a threat to all, we must not underestimate or dismiss the fact that it may soon be within our territory.