Pandemic preparedness can no longer be defined by static benchmarks, say experts

The measure of a nation's pandemic preparedness is defined by the dynamism and agility of the system to react and adapt. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Countries that have been agile and able to scale up their responses to Covid-19 to a national level, as well as react quickly to the shifting circumstances of the pandemic, have likely fared well thus far.

The measure of a nation's pandemic preparedness can no longer be defined by static benchmarks - such as the number of hospital beds or laboratories available - but by the dynamism and agility of the system to react and adapt to what the latest data shows, said Dr Michael Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme, on Thursday (Nov 25).

"It's like measuring how well someone is going to do on the sports field. By just measuring how much they can bench, lift, or how fast they can run on a treadmill, you can say that they're very strong, fast and fit. But that doesn't measure how well they're going to do in a game," added Dr Ryan, who was a special guest in the final episode of the webinar series, Covid-19: Updates From Singapore.

Jointly organised by the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, NUS Medicine International Council, National University Health System and WHO's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (Goarn), the webinar series brings together local and international experts to discuss the latest medical and scientific findings concerning Covid-19.

The series was co-hosted by Associate Professor David Allen, an infectious diseases clinician, Professor Dale Fisher from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and chair of the WHO's Goarn team, and Dr Louisa Sun, an associate consultant with the infectious diseases team at the National University Hospital (NUH) and Alexandra Hospital. In each episode, special guests have been invited to speak on a variety of topics.

Since the first episode on April 9, 2020, a total of 38 episodes have aired.

Reflecting on Singapore's response to the coronavirus outbreak, special guest Tan Chorh Chuan, chief health scientist from the Ministry of Health, said that despite the best-laid plans and experience gained from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2002, Covid-19 caught the Republic by surprise.

Professor Tan said that Singapore had some "advance notice" as the health authorities here saw what was happening in Wuhan, China, in the early days of the outbreak.

"The Sars paradigm takes us maybe halfway but now, we have to shift to a paradigm that is maybe Sars plus flu plus a bit more... we never really had a situation of sustained community transmission where we had to do social distancing... and many people have not really read very much about flattening the curve," he said.

"Along the way, we learnt that due to the prolonged nature of this epidemic, we also had to deal with very extensive social issues, such as healthcare capacity issues and so on.

"So I will say we had some early warning for Covid-19. We were prepared, but it also showed that our preparation was incomplete. And for the next one, we would have to now bring on the lessons learnt in this pandemic and prepare a more comprehensive response to much more contagious agents," Prof Tan added.

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Associate Professor Sophia Archuleta, head and senior consultant at the division of infectious diseases in NUH, was asked what was prioritised when the healthcare system was under pressure, given the competing demands of manpower, training and balancing patient care in both Covid-19 and non Covid-19 areas.

The team's health takes priority, she said.

"If we don't take care of ourselves as a group, we can't effectively take care of patients," Prof Archuleta stressed.

An effective workflow was called for, she added, one where patients could be taken to the right places in the hospital, with this system being dynamically adaptive depending on the amount of pressure the virus placed on the healthcare system.

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