FHS experts note the challenges of coordinating collective, global action during a health crisis.

Coronavirus outbreak reveals inadequacies in global health security system

February 27, 2020

By Clement Woo

Communication of timely, accurate information across different levels of the public health system, media and the general public is critical during a health crisis. With the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), this is even more challenging when the situation is constantly evolving and there are still many unknowns about the virus.

“What the World Health Organization continues to aim for is a balance between alerting the public to the risk but not panicking people,” says Kelley Lee, an SFU professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) and Canada Research Chair in Global Health Governance. “It is a difficult balance to achieve especially when there are so many other voices amplifying the fear factor.”

The emergence and rapid growth of various social media and online news outlets has also allowed misinformation and “fake news” to spread and become viral much quicker.

“It is even more difficult if you have an element of distrust somewhere along the communication pathway,” says Lee. “We are seeing this in China where there has been a history of controlling information flows.”

While countries like China currently have the resources to implement vast surveillance systems that can be used to detect the new virus and track human infection, that was not the case in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak, where efforts to use mobile phone information to fight the spread of disease ultimately failed.

FHS professor Susan Erikson, who was in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis, questions the effectiveness of big data in times of crisis.

“In reality, there is too little return on the massive investment required to translate telecom info into public-health action,” says Erikson. “The opportunity costs in an emergency are huge. Paying attention to low-return activity during a crisis means not paying attention to other more urgent public-health needs.”

A large part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) mandate is to act as the coordinating body for collective, global action to prevent and respond to disease outbreaks. Many have asked the question: Is WHO doing enough?

“It is doing all it is permitted to do under the authority granted under existing international law,” Lee explains. “As a member state organization, WHO does not have authority to impose its will on countries and simply override governments.”

In her Global Health Governance (HSCI 822) course this term, Lee and her students examine the precarious situation the world is currently in.

“There is a clear disconnect between our need for collective action, to deal with major threats to humankind, and the existing institutions we have to achieve such action,” Lee says, pointing to WHO’s response to COVID-19 as a example. “As a result of this disconnect, we are seriously vulnerable. If this is a trial run for a more severe and deadly future infectious disease outbreak, we need to urgently decide what authority and resources we need to give to WHO. What do we need WHO to be?”