This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
Banner image from L–R: Niel Hens (University of Hasselt and University of Antwerp), Stuart McDonald (Lloyds Banking Group), Philip Haywood (OECD), Ana Schreijer (Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Center), Torsten Kleinow (Research Centre for Longevity Risk)
Recently, the Research Centre for Longevity Risk invited four experts to share their experiences about the lessons we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Listening to the speakers has shone a light on what tremendous work has been done to get us through the crisis so far, and it was clear that change is needed to develop resilient and sustainable healthcare systems that work for society. If we are to inform policy makers and the general public in a way that creates the necessary momentum, we need to have stronger and more inclusive collaboration among experts working in different fields of expertise: medicine, public health, statistics, actuarial science, governments and the media.
When the global pandemic started in early 2020, there was alarm about the speed at which the virus was spreading and the impact it would have on the way we lived and worked. Niel Hens from the University of Hasselt and the University of Antwerp outlined the challenge faced by data scientists and actuaries. How do you quickly develop and adapt mathematical models to accurately estimate the pace at which the virus is spreading? Which groups in society would be most at risk? What would be the impact on hospital and ICU admissions?
The next layer of complexity lay in developing the necessary “what if” scenarios that would help inform policy makers’ approaches to contain the virus, manage the impact on our healthcare systems and support the economy.
Many of the models available had not been used in situations of this scale or complexity in the past. They were as reliable as the information that was fed into them and, like all models, had a built-in margin of error and level of uncertainty. The challenges in reporting accurate data were related to compiling complete and accurate information followed by minimising errors in the models. The next problem was, how do you communicate the results from these models to the public and policy makers in a way that changes behaviour and protects society?
We can all remember them from the news and newspapers: complicated charts with squiggly lines. Stuart McDonald from Lloyds Banking Group shared a slide during his presentation that captured what many of us struggled with in trying to make sense of what we were being presented with.
It was a real challenge to communicate such complex information. The person in the street wanted to know why restrictions around our movements and social contacts needed to be brought in and we all needed to get vaccinated. The news was clogged with updates on COVID-19 and the media was almost in a race to get information out to the public. Indeed, there were times when speed won over accuracy and scientific precision got lost in the hunt for a headline.
OECD leaders have the ability to end the worst of COVID-19—and a responsibility to reform the weak and outdated system meant to prevent the next pandemic by Helen Clark, Co-chair, Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response
Another area where communication played an important role was in connecting with hard to reach communities within society. Anja Schreijer of the Dutch Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Center spoke about the work that was done to reach people in a low-income neighbourhood in Rotterdam. The local health authority saw that testing and vaccination rates were lower than in other parts of the city, and realised that the methods of communication used nationally were not reaching the people locally. They worked with trusted people in the community and used test busses and test locations at the local mosque to encourage more people to get tested. In a six-week period, they managed to test 11% of the population. A significant achievement and a lesson learned that one solution does not necessarily work in all situations.
All four experts reflected on the need for accurate and reliable data as critical elements for decision making and scenario thinking. Clear and unambiguous communication is necessary to maintain the social solidarity necessary to minimise the impact on society, as well as help the general public understand what role they can play.
Philip Haywood of the OECD outlined how healthcare systems in many countries were already running at or near capacity in 2019. They were ill-prepared for the pandemic, an event we should have been thinking about in terms of “when” rather than “if” it would occur. Health systems need to be more resilient to shocks in the future if we are to deliver the care we need to our citizens. Philip outlined that, for a healthcare system to be resilient, we need to plan and prepare for potential disruptions; be able to absorb the consequences of a shock when it occurs; regain lost functions as quickly as possible; and adapt in a way that it learns and improves its capacity to absorb shocks in the future.
Stuart referred to research by The Economist showing that there had been 21.5 million estimated global excess deaths and 6.3 million global official COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic; the terrible human cost alone should be enough for anyone to realise that more can be done. As a research centre, it is important to bring experts together so that we can learn from each other, raise awareness and take steps to prepare for the future.