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Learning mistakes from the past and present

This is a guest blog by a medical applicant, Zahraa

Ever since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, I believe that it is very important for us to realise and learn from the mistakes we made, as a global community, that led us to where we are today. Many refer to this as an ‘unprecedented time’ however, we have seen this situation quite often than not- just in different forms. Since the beginning of the 21st century, we have had 20 outbreaks of disease across the world; ranging from the swine flu pandemic in 2009 to the 2015 Zika virus epidemic. So why have we suffered with so many outbreaks of infectious disease? Is it a case of a perfect, unpredictable storm or are there key lessons we keep forgetting time and time again?

In this blog post, I’m going to focus on one of the worst outbreaks of infectious disease prior to Covid-19: the West Africa Ebola Epidemic in 2014. It is quite upsetting to see the mistakes that were made during the Ebola outbreak, are still being made today. For example, many people told themselves that it ‘won’t happen to me’ and it’s an issue ‘only in West Africa’. This mindset led to the global community, leaders and civilians alike, being complacent towards the outbreak. We, unfortunately, have witnessed a very similar situation in the early days of Covid-19. Many people looked at this as a problem within China and that it wouldn’t affect them. Now, more than ever, we are so interconnected and a problem, in any country of the world, can turn into a global predicament very fast. 

Another issue epidemiologists made clear during the Ebola epidemic is that we are too dependent on vaccines and that, in order of us to be prepared for future outbreaks, we need to have the capacity and resources to treat patients- rather than scrambling to find a vaccine. Five years on, during Covid-19, we are still scrambling for a vaccine as many people get infected with this new virus. This shows us that we have forgotten these very important lessons we should’ve learned from previous epidemics. 

Lastly, the issue of health workers. During the Ebola epidemic, it was referred to as a ‘caregivers disease’ because so many frontline health workers and carers were contracting the virus. This was due to insufficient numbers of PPE ( personal protective equipment ) for the workers. Many people at the time viewed this issue as a result of the economic hardship the West African countries had, seeing this as something they could not obtain financially. However, Covid-19 has proven that this is not an issue of finance, it is an issue of readiness for outbreak. To date, 80 NHS frontline workers have passed away from the virus and over 9000 health workers in Spain have contracted the disease. PPE is scarce in parts of the UK and Europe, leading to our health workers being the most vulnerable to this infection. 

These two outbreaks occurred 5 years apart from each other, yet the mistakes and issues we are facing are uncanny. This shows us how crucial it is, for us a global community, to learn from our individual and our own country’s mistakes. We cannot allow ourselves to make the biggest mistake of them all and that is: to disregard the lessons we learn. 

After the Ebola epidemic was over, many professors in universities in America and the UK came out and offered steps to help better prepare us for the next novel outbreak and these included: 

  1. Reform the WHO

  2. Develop health systems and core capacities 

  3. Create an international healthcare workforce 

  4. Infection control

Unfortunately, many of these steps were not followed effectively. We need to ensure we, as a community, are aware of this so we can be better equipped for dealing with novel outbreaks in the future. Let us all learn from our mistakes now, to protect ourselves for generations to come.

“ You cannot set up a fire brigade when your house is already on fire ” 

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