Flattening the curve of COVID-19

Risk assessment, risk communication and risk governance are the game changers.
13 Apr 2020

Photo Credit: Unsplash / Macau Photo Agency

In Asia and the Pacific, the impact of COVID-19 has been tremendous due to the high concentration of people, economic activities and resource consumption. Coronavirus threatens economic, social and medical well-being of millions and we must act now to protect Asia's most vulnerable Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, the UN Under-Secretary-General and ESCAP’s Executive Secretary wrote in the Nikkei Asian Review on the 2nd of April.

The COVID-19 pandemic is primarily a health shock. Recognizing the health emergency as the prime objective, countries have been responding to the global health emergency with a range of critical interventions, addressing the vulnerabilities of communities at risk through social protection measures and providing fiscal support for emergency public interventions. Actions are shaped by an understanding of COVID-19 risks; its transmission pathways, the risks posed to specific sectors and vulnerable groups, and where it will spread most rapidly.

Risk assessment: The scientific understanding of the origin of COVID-19 is still evolving, but the virus spreads through human to human contact at an exponential rate. Identifying who has been infected is therefore key to risk assessment. Countries are using smart tools for sensing, detecting, testing and tracking the risk. For example, the Chinese government has mitigated the spread significantly by collaborating with tech giants Alibaba and Tencent to develop a color-coded health rating system that is tracking millions of people daily by using big data and artificial intelligence (AI) for facial recognition and infrared temperature detection techniques. Smartphone apps are tracking people’s movements to ascertain whether they have been in contact with an infected person. Furthermore, Republic of Korea has capitalized on its diagnostic capacity at scale to assess people at risk and conduct contact tracing, allowing them to map the potential infection zones.

Risk communication: Risk communication is critical for responding to public health emergencies, especially fast-spreading pandemics like COVID-19. For preventive actions to be successful, there must be effective risk communication between health experts, governments and at-risk communities; it should be real time and ‘actionable’. The World Health Organization’s Situation Dashboard is an example of risk communication at the global scale. Using an ArcGIS platform, it provides the latest location-specific updates on the outbreak, including numbers of infected people, deaths, affected countries and other related data. Several academic institutions, companies and countries are using data analytics, integrated geospatial data, machine learning and AI tools to provide a comprehensive and dynamic response to the rapidly changing situation. Local technological innovations are also being utilized by small and medium-sized enterpises. In Thailand the covid tracker is one of the most popular, dynamic and interactive web-portals providing information on the spread of COVID-19. Such innovations communicate better risk information among the key stakeholders.

Risk governance: The understanding of the COVID-19 risk underpins a vast array of government actions to contain the outbreak. This includes the closures of schools and public attractions, implementation of travel bans, quarantines and nationwide lockdowns that have been introduced in many countries around the world. Such effective risk governance is particularly critical to protect the most vulnerable, such as the over one million people living within Dharavi, Asia's largest slum in Mumbai. This settlement has been identified as a virus hotspot, as large families live within a maze of crowded lanes and cramped huts, with livelihoods relying upon small workshops. COVID-19 has already been identified within Dharavi and there is now a significant governance challenge to contain community transmission among the poor and most vulnerable. Geo-spatial risk analytics are used to identify the risk hotspots, develop containment plans, provide targeted preventive actions, and to ensure the supply of essential goods and services to these areas.

Countries such as China and Republic of Korea who have flattened the curve demonstrate the benefits of capitalizing on these risk informed interventions. The challenge lies in balancing the access to authoritative risk information as well as respecting data security and privacy issues.

Risk management is at core of the preparing for future pandemics. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 advocates for an all-hazards approach to managing disaster risk. This requires governments to recognize the links between epidemics and disasters. In this regard, the Priority of Actions that the Sendai Framework includes are strengthening the knowledge and science provision in understanding disaster and health-related emergency risks, extending disaster risk governance to manage both disaster risks and potential health-emergencies, particularly for humanitarian coordination aspects; and strengthening community-level preparedness and response to epidemics.

The links between managing epidemics and disasters are further highlighted by the Bangkok Principles for implementation of the health aspects of the Sendai Framework. These principles highlight the need to ensure that future pandemic prevention strategies are based on the Sendai Framework.

Related SDGs: Goal 1: No Poverty, Goal 3: Good health and well-being, Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities