October 20, 2020

Source : OZY Live Curiously

Reading Time: 5 Minutes

The World Health Organization has predicted that the current COVID-19 death toll of more than 1 million will likely double before a vaccine is developed and rolled out. I believe this is avoidable if the world follows the example of densely populated, developing countries like Bangladesh and integrates cutting-edge tech solutions with long-established disease control principles to create technological epidemiology.

Many countries are experiencing second waves, and it is becoming clear that many of the measures taken have merely delayed, rather than eliminated, the dangers of the virus.

The current plan in much of the world — rolling lockdowns, social distancing where possible, wearing masks — can slow the spread, but not to a level where significant unnecessary deaths can be avoided.

Many governments are simply trying to buy time until a vaccine is found. However, a viable vaccine is certainly not guaranteed, and its adoption by skeptical pockets of populations and its global rollout is another matter entirely (the United Kingdom and the United States, two of the richest countries in the world, took almost 30 years to eradicate polio after a vaccine was first produced in the 1950s).

In the face of criticism, many governments have repeated the mantra that they are led by “The Science.” This neglects two things: First, epidemiologists are divided, often bitterly, about the best formulation of social distancing and lockdowns, meaning there is science but not The Science.


This is a convenient — and perhaps necessary — simplification. The prominence of scientific advisers like Sir Patrick Vallance in the U.K. and Dr. Anthony Fauci in the U.S. is perhaps just as important as the leadership of elected heads of states. Citizens want to know that their elected officials are led by cutting-edge expertise, not merely politics.

What no one is acknowledging is that much of The Science being followed is actually very dated.

Epidemiology is defined as the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations. This sounds like exactly what we need more of during a pandemic, but are we always using the latest methods to carry out this important work?

Many of the methods used by John Snow, one of the fathers of modern epidemiology, to fight 19th-century cholera outbreaks were carried through to the 20th-century Spanish flu and remain fundamentally unchanged. The tools used then — lockdowns and face masks — are almost identical to those used today.

This is not to dispute the effectiveness of social distancing and personal protective equipment when used correctly. But how many other scientific fields rely on the same methods today that they did a century ago?

Science is about more than epidemiology. Almost all scientific fields have benefited from big data, algorithms and other methods that have only come of age in the last decade, rather than the last century.

Some of the epidemiologists and decision-makers are, even at a more micro level, not relying on the state-of-the-art tools that should be at their disposal during a crisis. For example, the Imperial College London team whose analysis has been key to British government policy was using a model built 13 years ago.

This is a sign of two things: lack of investment in public health, and the field being viewed in isolation rather than as an interdisciplinary space that cuts across public health, data science, information and communication technology (ICT) and strategic public policy.

In almost every country, this is a challenge for different ministries and public services that are used to operating independently. But as I have seen since the founding of Bangladesh’s Aspire to Innovate (a2i) Program as part of the government’s Digital Bangladesh agenda, the investment is definitely worth it.