• Last updated: 4th March 2020
  • Coronavirus COVID-19 is part of a pattern of increasingly frequent epidemics that have coincided with globalization, urbanization and climate change.
  • As society becomes more connected, collaboration and cooperation will be needed to reduce the impact of future epidemics.

As Coronavirus spreads, so does the sobering reality that epidemics will become more common with our increasingly connected age.

In our global society, outbreaks of infectious disease can move from a remote village to a major city on the other side of the world in under 36 hours.

Understanding this new reality will be key to reducing the risk of future epidemics.

A swelling population

As the world’s population swells, so will the number of outbreaks and the people impacted. “The number of outbreaks, like the number of emerging infectious diseases, appears to be increasing with time in the human population both in total number and richness of causal diseases," according to the authors of one recent study.

Additionally, the WHO says there are 7,000 signals of potential outbreaks every month. And in June 2018, for the first time ever, the world faced six of the eight categories of disease highlighted in the WHO Blueprint priority diseases list.

The number of countries experiencing significant disease outbreaks 1995-2018.
Image: Outbreak Readiness and Business Impact Report 2019

A connected population

Trends from globalization to travel, urbanization and climate change are fueling the increased incidence of outbreaks.

We’re an increasingly mobile global population, travelling more for both work or pleasure than ever before. In 2018, there were 4.2 billion air transport passenger journeys – compared to 310 million in 1970. This mobility helped propel coronavirus' swift transfer from China to more than 60 countries in two just months.

The interconnected nature of global risks.
Image: The Global Risks Report 2020

We're also living closer together, as the global population grows and puts pressure on living space. By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas, according to the UN.

Climate change exacerbates these trends and the incidence of infectious diseases. By 2080, extreme global warming could expose 1 billion people to mosquito-borne diseases in previously unaffected regions such as Europe and East Africa, according to the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2020.

In 2015, for example, the El Niño effect allowed Zika to spread from Brazil to the rest of South America.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Changes ahead

The spread of infectious diseases bring a number of shifts for the global population.

Infectious diseases were named one of the top 10 risks in terms of impact for the next 10 years according to the Global Risks Report. This report, published in January, came with a special warning: “As existing health risks resurge and new ones emerge, humanity’s past successes in overcoming health challenges are no guarantee of future results.”

These diseases will reshape economies. Economists estimate that, in the coming decades, flu pandemics will cause average annual losses of 0.7% of global GDP – or $570 billion.

Meanwhile, climate change will have its own impact on the global economy. By 2050, under a high-emissions scenario that sees global warming reach 2°C, global GDP losses could range between 2.5% to 7.5%, according to Oxford Economics. The worst affected countries could likely be in Asia and Africa – countries also most impacted by epidemics.

COVID-19 is already impacting on global markets, with the OECD predicting it could be the “greatest danger to the global economy” since the financial crash.

Reducing the long-term risks

With an increasing likelihood that we’ll see more epidemics on this scale in future, the World Economic Forum's Outbreak Readiness and Business Impact white paper points to a “cycle of attention and neglect,” which must be broken for countries and companies to effectively manage the risks.

Given a increasingly connected society, fighting future epidemics will no longer be the sole responsibility of public healthcare experts. Solutions will take cooperation from a range of leaders, both public and private, as well as the help of the general population.

Working together will be key. As the white paper explains, "By looking for opportunities to create shared value with government and civil society organizations, businesses can support better global and local capacity to manage the risk and impact of outbreaks.”