For decades, scientists and virologists have been predicting a deadly virus outbreak, with the majority of the world’s pandemics attributed to zoonosis—infectious diseases transmitted from animals to humans. Despite these warnings, many countries were caught unprepared when the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was first detected in 2020. We were forced to adapt to the virus on the fly, learning how to slow its spread, introducing safety protocols such as social distancing and mask-wearing, and developing vaccines and having them approved and administered across the globe in record speed.
The question is whether the lessons learned from COVID-19 will prepare Asia for the next major crisis—or what scientists and policy makers call “Crisis X.” This, along with the importance of regional collaboration and data sharing among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, were focal points of discussion at the Special Ministerial Conference for ASEAN Digital Public Health, held in October 2021.
A widespread crisis requires a collective response
One of the biggest takeaways from the conference was that when faced with an unknown Crisis X, we must move away from an acute healthcare model of addressing singular needs to a wider public health response by the community as a whole. All stakeholders, from the government and private sector right down to individuals, play a role in supporting critical public healthcare systems by shouldering some responsibility for the health of the community as a whole so these systems do not crumble under the pressure.
An example of this would be mobilizing collaboration between the public and private sectors for crisis intervention to allow them to take on roles that play to their strengths. This can include leveraging supply chain partners to provide essential supplies and provisions to communities who need them the most during a crisis. Public healthcare systems can also benefit from the private sector’s wide range of expertise and capabilities, such as R&D and manufacturing, to complement their critical work during a pandemic. The astonishingly rapid development of vaccines globally has been a shining example of such work.
Individuals, on the other hand, have had to adapt to the new social norms of wearing masks, social distancing, observing strict personal hygiene, and self-isolating to reduce infection rates. Volunteers and community groups have stepped up to educate the public on how to prevent infection and persuade them to participate in such measures.
Health ministries and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) can work together to distribute vaccines to nations that have limited access to them. Governments and NGOs can also collaborate through research projects where data can be shared and used to guide policy makers on crisis strategies. An example of such an effort is a field project funded by Temasek Foundation and co-led by Brunei Darussalam’s Ministry of Health, Universitas Brunei Darussalam, and Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. The collaborative project is designed to compare the long-term immune response and efficacy of vaccines and their ability in achieving herd immunity by measuring the neutralizing antibodies in fully vaccinated individuals. The results of this study will help inform and guide future decisions on COVID-19 policies and control strategies across the region, such as on travel regulations, green lane arrangements, quarantine periods, and mandatory booster shots. Temasek Foundation is also collaborating with other ASEAN nations on various initiatives to enhance wider learning on crisis preparedness and response, including research and sero-surveillance programs, with the outcomes to be shared with policy makers from those countries.
The importance of regional partnerships and collaborations
ASEAN was founded on the spirit of collaboration and cooperation, and the pandemic has made it imperative for the region to come together to face and find solutions for the possible dimensions of risk for the next crisis.
The nature of the next crisis, or Crisis X, is that there are many “unknown unknowns,” which could range from diseases to natural disasters and even wars. What we have learned from COVID-19 is that communication and cooperation within individual societies and beyond allow us to prepare for crises through the exchange of resources, information, ideas, and, hopefully, solutions. If we can come together to think about the kinds of crises that could happen, we can create pathways to learn and develop protocols to cope with them when they do happen.
It is often said that during times of crisis, no one is safe until everyone is safe. We need to build networks of exchange today and establish trust in each other to lay the foundations for international collaboration, mutual trust, and cooperation to prepare for the next crisis.
This was one of the many topics discussed at the Special Ministerial Conference for ASEAN Digital Public Health held in October 2021 and led by Brunei Darussalam, the 2021 Chair of ASEAN and host of the conference. Temasek Foundation was a co-organizer of the event, together with EVYD Knowledge Hub and in collaboration with Brunei Darussalam’s Ministry of Finance and Economy and Ministry of Health.