Hans-Christian Wirtz longform article
If we want to create a new age of well-care, where we do not only treat sickness after it appears, but predict or prevent as much as possible, we cannot let the burden fall on just the healthcare sector or governments alone. We all have a collective responsibility to manage and maintain our own health. This idea does not just extend to illnesses like heart disease or diabetes: it must also factor in the spread of infectious diseases, and the potential outbreak of epidemics or even pandemics. Here, just like monitoring our own good health, everyone in society must play a part.
Society’s role in the well-care era
A holistic approach to well-care means that governments, various civil and public sectors, and the general population, all have a part to play.
Almost every sector in a global society is linked - and breakdowns in one industry can have significant effects on others. Disruption to electricity and water services, for instance, can mean hospitals and other healthcare facilities cannot function. Likewise the disruptions caused by illness to staff shortages, repair times and company reliability, can have knock-on effects that damage all society.
This interconnectedness means every sector must work together to combat illness during a disease breakout, and to maintain health afterwards. Establishing continuity practices before a breakout strikes, and preparing for any possible impact on numerous sectors, are critical for a well-care future. And beyond these contingency plans, it must be the responsibility of every sector to protect its employees and customers - and educate them on protecting themselves - to minimise disruption and sickness.
The other major contributor to wellness is the individual. Rather than relying on governments and various sectors to contribute during a disease outbreak, the general public must play their part, actively seeking out accurate information and ensuring they have secure access to necessary resources. Individuals can also support the healthcare sector by volunteering with charities and other civil sector organisations (CSOs) to provide for others in times of need. Additionally, routinely practising simple health measures, such as washing hands or covering sneezes, can have a significant impact.
Examples from the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of how effective society can be when it comes together. The last three years saw both formal and informal civil bodies created, focusing on issues that governments were unable to solve, as well as activists encouraging the government to act on certain health issues. Ideas of solidarity and partnership were fostered by these groups, and encouraged greater societal involvement in combating the effects of the pandemic.
In COVID-19, as well as in other pandemics such as Ebola, local leaders have also proved invaluable as a link between governments and communities. Their support was crucial in countering false information, as well as encouraging prevention and control activities.
The recent pandemic also saw initial uses of internet epidemiology – the use of innovative technologies to help monitor and control disease. Naturally, people would search for their symptoms on the internet to self-diagnose. For the first time, this became a two-way portal of health exchange, where individuals sought information on the disease, and health authorities could use this search data to find hotspots of the disease, and better understand how the disease spread.
Learnings from COVID-19
While the COVID-19 pandemic did see greater societal involvement in health management than ever before, there remain many areas for improvement in how society comes together to combat the spread of infection. These learnings must be taken to heart if we are to minimise infectious outbreaks in the future – or prevent them altogether.
Timing was vital in the early days of the pandemic, and a failure to take COVID-19 seriously was a major factor in its global spread. Safety measures were delayed and educational materials published too late to effectively prevent the disease’s spread.
Post-COVID-19, businesses and public sectors, as well as governments, must create robust preparedness plans which account for protecting public health capacities and organising co-operation across society. Similarly, the general public must be more alert for future disease outbreaks, and take earlier, greater measures to safeguard the health of themselves and others, seeking out accurate information and following government and healthcare advice.
Information and education
A lesson was also learned around how information should be presented to communities. The amount of information provided, both accurate and false, became known as the ‘infodemic’, creating confusion about facts and a lack of trust in the healthcare sector. In the future, this information flow must be more closely handled, with both the healthcare sector and community leaders acting to dispel false information, disseminate facts about diseases and treatments, and address individuals’ concerns and information requests. Failure to adhere to policies and government information can mean the need for large-scale, costly interventions to prevent widespread outbreaks in the future.
While community support and two-way communication between society and government was critical to overcoming the pandemic, more must be done sooner, and continue after the critical stages of the crisis have passed. Considering how best to engage and inform the individual community is vital. This should be done either by improving means of engagement, supportive policies and funding to establish environments of respect and shared values, or by using existing engagement frameworks to tap into community sentiment.
We must start reducing stigma around mental health. During the pandemic, psychological distress reached crisis levels, and it is clear that more must be done to protect mental health and reduce stigma around it in future. In all future instances it is critical that healthcare workers monitor for mental health as much as for physical, and that mental health resources are not reallocated; that greater investment is made in protecting mental health in and out of crises; and that everybody within a society takes steps to protect their mental health, as well as encouraging discussion around the mental health of others.
Technology and AI
We must also continue to use technological advances, from data aggregation to AI, to understand diseases in real-time and stop the spread of disease before it is too late. When the next major outbreak occurs, we must be ready with new tools that we are all in a position to use and contribute to.
Modern society requires more than government organisation to protect our health. To create a true well-care era, in which we manage and maintain health before illness occurs, we must all become involved. As the COVID-19 pandemic showed, it is possible to act as a society to combat illness. Now we must continue that development, into a new age of wellness.
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