Globalization: Essential for disaster preparedness despite its risks
Posted on Monday, April 6, 2020
By Michelle Read
No infectious disease in history has spread as fast and as far as COVID-19, says Dr. Mark Walker, epidemiologist and interim director of Internationalization and Global Health at the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine.
And though globalization bears a large responsibility for the pandemic, the enhanced communication among people and governments has emerged as one of one of the world’s strengths in this fight.
“For sure it is an effect of globalization—but on the other hand, that globalization has opened up a transparency between countries,” he says. “When this happens again in the next 10 years, we will be much more ready for it.”
As a senior scientist with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, the chief of obstetrics, gynecology and newborn care at The Ottawa Hospital, and a professor at the Faculty of Medicine and cross-appointed to the Telfer School of Management, Dr. Walker sees the COVID-19 crisis through many different lenses.
Continuous flow of information between countries
From the perspective of a researcher, Dr. Walker is impressed at how scientists around the world are pulling together to uncover the secrets and weaknesses of the novel coronavirus. As scientists make discoveries, they share their vaccine research, science and registries, in a continuous flow of information. Researchers are excited about breakthroughs that are happening quickly because of rapid info-sharing—often before it’s even in print.
“Incredibly, they sequenced the entire genome of the virus within days,” Dr. Walker says. “It’s simply ethical to share knowledge at this time of global struggle.”
The Government of Canada has promised close to $27 million in research funding to help address the global emergency; to date, more than $2 million has been awarded to the University of Ottawa. Equally exciting, Walker says, are the many grants still on their way from Canada’s funding bodies, including those backing multi-national partnerships.
From the public health perspective, lessons learned from the misfortunes of other countries have enabled Canada to be proactive in this country’s efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ of infection, Dr. Walker says.
“We can only act on what we know about the virus—which is currently very little. And sad to say, our learning also includes ‘nature’s experiments’ such as the crises on cruise ships.”
Observing neighbours improves ability to adapt and train
Cultural traditions and liberal-democratic norms can make public health interventions like social distancing difficult. Only when death rates spiralled did Italy stop church services. In Canada, social distancing measures began—and to some extent, remain—as voluntary, although increasingly they are being legally enforced.
The Italian experience prompted many Canadian institutions, including the University of Ottawa and the Faculty of Medicine, to seize the initiative in moving classes online and sending learners home without waiting for a government directive to do so.
“It’s such a difficult decision to shut down a university. The University of Ottawa and the Faculty demonstrated exceptional leadership in this regard, and I am very proud of our institution. They saved thousands of lives: these kids would have become ill and gone home to their grandparents,” Dr. Walker says.
In another example of rapid adaptation, the University of Ottawa Skills and Simulation Centre—a partnership between uOttawa and The Ottawa Hospital—is using the online environment to walk health professionals through safe, simulated scenarios involving medical interventions for COVID-19 patients. Simulation is a strength in Canada and at the Faculty, which Walker says is “doing a very good job in sharing information with health professionals at home and abroad through simulation training, posting videos on open access platforms, and publishing scientific literature quickly.”
Improving our response by addressing gaps
Though the pandemic has revealed many strengths in our people and institutions, it has also exposed weaknesses. Now that things have gotten very real, Walker sees that recent health care cuts both here and abroad have reduced our capacity to respond. "There is great angst in all health care workers about the possibility of running out of Personal Protective Equipment, with 10% of all COVID-19 positive people in Ontario working in the sector,” he says.
Fixing those weaknesses now will improve the world’s disaster preparedness and health systems in general. Lessons learned from China, Singapore and Korea are guiding our pandemic responses and will guide our preparedness in the future, says Walker.
“This disease is placing great demands on public health. Strengthening this infrastructure to meet this challenge will contribute to our fight of other diseases,” he says.
As well, the outsourcing of manufacturing capacity has resulting in a situation where the production of critical medical supplies can become consolidated in one, or a few, countries. For example, China is said to make an estimated half of the world’s supply of face masks—when brought to their knees themselves, exports ground to a halt.
“We must diversify vendors, or even create our own supply stream,” says Dr. Walker, a thought shared by Prime Minister Trudeau, who recently announced $2 billion in support of made-in-Canada solutions. At Bauer Hockey in Montreal, production has switched from ice skates to medical face shields. Some of Canada’s largest auto part manufacturers have pivoted to the production of ventilators. Canadian industry is doing its part, said Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and industry.
Global relations must continue to be nurtured if we are to prepare ourselves in times of crisis, says Dr. Walker. But globalization must be done differently. Curbing travel is the first step in preventing future pandemics.
“The vector was definitely airplanes,” he says. “Globalization must be more virtual if we are to avoid this in the future.”
Watch Dr. Mark Walker's webinar, COVID-19 Global Pandemic and Global Response, in which he:
- describes what COVID 19 is and the impact of globalization on its spread
- identifies how we leveraged our global resources and partnership to prepare for the pandemic
- explains how the global community of scientists will work together for treatments and a vaccine