• A professor of biology explores our reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • There's a lot of negativity, but from getting the virus under control to global collaboration, there are reasons to hope.
  • Open debate about where the moral balance lies between the costs and benefits of social distancing is important.

Much of the media coverage of COVID-19 is focused on bad things happening. It is very easy to accuse people of bungling when you have 20-20 hindsight and it makes good headlines, but is it right?

What can look like a fiasco from the outside is often very plausible if seen in real time and in the round. Zeroing in on the inevitable problems that crop up in a fast-moving situation, rather than trying to see the bigger picture, doesn’t really help inform the public and arm them with facts.

For example, much commentary about testing for COVID-19 is poorly informed. Testing is a complex issue that is as much about how tests are deployed and used as the type of tests or how many are available. We need to be clear about what questions we are asking about testing and how good the answers are likely to be.

Testing is critical to the relaxing of current social distancing measures so improving the knowledge about its strengths and weaknesses in the mind of the public is critical to success. In the end, we will only make relaxation of restrictions work if individuals have the information they need to make decisions about what is safe or unsafe.

coronavirus cases global countries
Cummulative confirmed cases in the top 10 countries with the highest absolute number of deaths.
Image: Johns Hopkins University

The media has a critical role to deliver these important messages. Aggressive interrogation of government has its place, but it is unhelpful when it results in a defensive response, the tying up of resources and general distraction from solving the fundamental problem caused by this terrible disease. COVID-19 is not a political problem even if some people want to make it so. The only thing that will win if we politicise it is the virus itself, SARS-CoV-2.

To counterbalance negativity, I suggest we also need to look towards the positives so that people can see what has been done, what is working and how things might look in the future if we encounter a second wave of the virus.

1. COVID-19 is under control in many countries

The value of R0 – the average number of people infected by someone with the disease – was about 3 when the pandemic kicked off. Now it is down below 1 in many countries and probably also in the UK. This means the disease is under control and in decline. Even if there is still a long way to go to nail this disease down, we should not understate this achievement and what it means.

If that had not happened in the UK and elsewhere, then the current problems with PPE, ventilators and hospital beds, not to mention the personal suffering, would have been minuscule by comparison. Instead, our hospitals are broadly operating within capacity even if there have been pinch points in various places at particular times.

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.

2. This has been achieved by us all abandoning our way of life temporarily

This may not seem like something that is positive, but given the deep divisions that exist within UK society – most profoundly illustrated throughout Brexit – it is remarkable to have witnessed this unity of action that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

I do not think any behavioural scientists would have predicted just how much we have all pulled together to get on top of this disease. The rapid transition to a strategy of social distancing has been an immense success even if it has been tough going.

3. We now know a lot more about how to manage this disease

For a virus we never knew existed five months ago, thanks to a huge effort to collect data behind the scenes, we now know it almost molecule by molecule. However much we may wish for a vaccine and useful tests, we have methods to control COVID-19 that we now know can work.

We also know a lot more about the kind of challenges there are ahead. For example, we can predict a winter resurgence of disease. Troublesome though it may be, we can, if we have the will to do so, keep COVID-19 under control even without a vaccine and testing. That is no small achievement.

4. We have learned how to act in unison at a massive, global scale

The global response to the significant problem of COVID-19 has been remarkable. It has averted a disaster for humanity and it suggests we do have the organisational ability to tackle the really big problems facing people and the planet.

5. We know a lot more about our vulnerabilities and how to manage them

Individual countries are learning by doing. In the UK, we will continue to adapt and flex to the “new normal”. Modification of the social distancing policy needs to happen while also being informed by reliable knowledge about how much any change might tend to push the R0 figure back up towards 1.

Costs and benefits

Balancing all this against the disadvantages of social distancing for vulnerable people and the economy will always be a hard, morally based choice. It will involve adaptive management – learning about what works by experimenting with different methods – and patience. But it will also need to involve open debate about where the moral balance lies between costs and benefits.

This debate needs to be informed by the fundamental success we are experiencing and will not be enhanced by mudslinging. The rising ambient noise of criticism from leader writers and political editors, and the tendency to emphasise the bad over the good, seems strangely at odds with the story lying in the bigger picture and the correct moral posture in these challenging times.