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  • Brendan Shaw

The ultimate weapon against Covid19?: Understanding

"understanding - [ uhn-der-stan-ding ]


  1. mental process of a person who comprehends; comprehension; personal interpretation:My understanding of the word does not agree with yours.

  2. intellectual faculties; intelligence; mind:a quick understanding.

  3. superior power of discernment; enlightened intelligence:With her keen understanding she should have become a leader.

  4. knowledge of or familiarity with a particular thing; skill in dealing with or handling something:an understanding of accounting practice.

  5. a state of cooperative or mutually tolerant relations between people:To him, understanding and goodwill were the supreme virtues.

  6. a mutual agreement, especially of a private, unannounced, or tacit kind:They had an understanding about who would do the dishes.

  7. an agreement regulating joint activity or settling differences, often informal or preliminary in character:After hours of negotiation, no understanding on a new contract was reached.

  8. Philosophy - the power of abstract thought; logical power. Kantianism. the mental faculty resolving the sensory manifold into the transcendental unity of apperception. .


  1. characterized by understanding; prompted by, based on, or demonstrating comprehension, intelligence, discernment, empathy, or the like:an understanding attitude." -

"We're all in this together. #COVID19"

- Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organization

One of the things that helped the spread of the Spanish flu pandemic between 1918 and 1920 was international divisions surrounding the First World War. (You can read my earlier bog on this here).

Jingoism and pandemics don’t mix

War, censorship, jingoism, division and populism contributed to the spread of the Spanish flu by preventing a global response to a pandemic that ultimately killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people.

A collaborative international response to a global problem facing us all was not forthcoming, in part, because we were at war with each other.

Amongst other things, censorship of the media, the withholding of information, nations fighting amongst themselves and a general anti-internationalist approach at the time meant that an informed coordinated global response to the pandemic was impossible.

Many, many more people were killed by the Spanish flu pandemic compared to those killed by the First World War.

Today, 100 years later, the world is again facing anti-globalisation movements, nationalism, division, disunity, populism and parochialism just as another pandemic is taking hold in the form of the coronavirus, or Covid19, outbreak.

Source: WHO. 2020. “Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 55”, 15/3/2020,, accessed 16/3/2020.

At the time of writing, 154,000 people worldwide have the virus, over 5,700 have died, and the World Health Organization has officially declared it a pandemic.

At one level we are better prepared this time.

Today we have international institutions and plans such as the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Investment, global pandemic preparedness plans, a global scientific research community and a global pharmaceutical industry that make it their business to cure and prevent disease.

And we much more science, technology and knowledge than we did 100 years ago.

History never repeats ….. well, sort of …..

But how better prepared are we today?

The Economist magazine recently suggested three things that will determine how effectively national governments will respond to the coronavirus outbreak: attitudes to uncertainty, the structure and competence of health systems, and trust in politicians.

Anyone who has been watching what’s been happening in the world knows our strength in these are in short supply to varying degrees today depending on where you live.

Things like international cooperation, holistic views and evidence-based decision making have not been top-of-mind in the growth of populist politics worldwide in recent times.

But we are seeing today, just as we did with the Spanish Flu pandemic 100 years ago, that viruses don't care about borders.

They certainly don't care about religion, language, ideology or politics.

They infect people regardless of any of these.

While we as humans often use these things to talk about how different we all are, viruses don't see it that way.

Viruses just see us all as people.

The truth is that we are all in this together, regardless of where we come from, what we believe, who we love or which football team we support.

And though up until now people in some parts of the world have looked at the coronavirus outbreak as ‘someone else’s problem’, there is now growing but belated recognition that this disease is a global problem.

Various health systems around the world have been caught napping because of a combination of a lack of preparedness, a lack of investment and the speed the virus’ spreads whilst remaining undetected.

Fear and ignorance are contagious

However, we've unfortunately again seen that racism, fear and ignorance can be more much contagious than viruses.

Be it boycotting Chinese restaurants, selective travel bans or panic buying of toilet paper, sometimes we take leave of our senses in the heat of the moment.

While lately it has been politically fashionable to trash facts, evidence, humility, education, science, tolerance, cross-cultural communication, openness, international collaboration, adaptability to uncertainty, respect for each other, learning lessons from the past and focussing on the future, it is precisely these things that are going to save us from Covid19.

Pandemics love division, fear and mistrust amongst people.

It's what helps them spread.

Investment in health care

The Covid19 outbreak has also demonstrated the economic imperative of investing in healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry.

Resilience and capacity in health systems is critical.

Our failure to sufficiently make the economic case for substantial investment in health systems to date is coming home to roost.

As the head of the Global Fund has recently said, just as the Global Financial Crisis led to a major injection of investment into the financial system to strengthen its capacity, so too the Covid19 pandemic must trigger a substantial investment in health systems to strengthen their capacity.

The current pandemic is revealing where health systems are not well structured for dealing with health emergencies.

In the current environment decisions on everything from social distancing, travel bans, treatment protocols, allocating resources, ending handshakes, cancelling conferences and closing football matches are going to need evidence and resilient health systems.

The fact we also have a pharmaceutical industry capable of developing medicines and vaccines today is also a key factor in our favour, with a number of companies racing to develop a vaccine and identify treatments.

Global cooperation required

Rather like the global cooperative response to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis or like the global cooperative response we will need to solve climate change, the response to the Covid19 pandemic also needs to be a globally coordinated response governed by cooperation and understanding.

Closing borders at a moment's notice without consulting affected countries or without looking at the evidence does not set a good precedent.

And there are concerns that countries are not working together as well as they should be, with some acting quickly, some acting slowly, and some not acting enough at all.

We also need to build understanding and work across sectors in ways we have not done before with pandemics and disease outbreaks.

The previous pandemic, the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, saw good initial collaboration between governments, WHO and industry but resulted in reviews and accusations that the WHO got too close to the private sector.

Then during the Ebola outbreaks in 2014-15, in contrast the pharmaceutical industry was criticised at the time for not being sufficiently engaged in dealing with Ebola.

This time around during the Covid19 pandemic, collaboration between the public and private sectors seems to be better.

But we should find ways to manage cross-sectoral cooperation more strategically over the long-term.

What we need

Understanding, broadly defined in all its forms, is what can defeat pandemics like Covid19.

Understanding the science of the virus and the technology to prevent it, like researching for a new vaccine.

Understanding the things we need to do together and why, such as explaining to people why early and difficult actions now like social distancing and 'flattening the curve' are important.

Understanding other countries and cultures, rather than characterising Covid19 as the disease of a particular country.

Understanding human behaviour and how to encourage people to change, like learning proper hand washing and greeting with an 'elbow bump' or the Wuhan Shake.

Understanding why people are worried and how to manage it.

And understanding that we are, indeed, all in this together.

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