Four Things Experts Have Learned From the Pandemic

Germs, disinformation, and inequities are easily spread, say COVID-19 researchers

The battle is far from over, but public health professionals have already learned some valuable lessons about fighting a pandemic. Tufts researchers, science journalists, and health experts from around the globe shared some of what they have learned at the virtual Tufts 2020 COVID-19 Research Symposium in November. Here are some takeaways:

Fighting a pandemic takes a coordinated—preferably global—response.

Despite missteps countries have made in battling the coronavirus, there is no denying the “unprecedented kind of scientific collaboration, the kind of technological breakthroughs” that have emerged during the pandemic, said keynote speaker Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the World Health Organization.

That’s one reason, she said, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the WHO was a step in the wrong direction. She said the $400 million that the United States contributes annually to the WHO could probably be made up from other sources. But the greater loss would be the technical links that have long served the relationship in both directions. Take the example of influenza vaccines, she said.

“Every year, the WHO convenes experts—and the CDC is part of that network—who formulate the vaccine strains for the following year. And imagine if you were not part of that global system and you had to do this on your own,” she said. “It would be very hard to do.”

“In this age that we live in, where everything is globalized, where pandemics can start in any country in the world, you need a global system to tackle those,” she said.

Keynote speaker Eric Rubin, M90, GBS90, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, said that one lesson already learned from the pandemic is that the scientific community needs more coordination, especially when it comes to designing clinical trials for treatments. Here, he talks about the fruitlessness of fragmented trials.

Eric Rubin, M90, GBS90, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, talks about testing COVID-19 treatments.

Don’t discount low-tech strategies.

Rubin, a tuberculosis researcher, said that measures such as quarantining have long been used to prevent the spread of TB. “Quarantine has a long history and it’s something that we have done for centuries,” he explained. “And it works. It works really well. And I think that there has been a limited public understanding of the fact that this is a highly effective intervention.”

He noted that New Zealand, Taiwan, and Nova Scotia have been able to use “super low-tech” strategies like mask-wearing, hand-washing, and quarantining very effectively.

“They’re slow. They’re hard,” he said of these social interventions. And just because a vaccine is on the horizon does not mean that people can be lax about wearing masks and staying apart. “You don’t want to be the last person to die of COVID,” he said.

Misinformation and disinformation have been rampant.

That scientific knowledge comes about through a slow, iterative, and self-corrective process is not well understood by the general public. That means there is often confusion about how to interpret the latest scientific findings. But that is not what has been concerning Apoorva Mandavilli lately.

“I think there’s always been misinformation about anything in science, mainly because as a society we have not done a great job of educating people on how science works,” said Mandavilli, a health and science reporter for the New York Times. “But I think something that we’ve really sort of uniquely dealt with to a very high degree during this pandemic is disinformation, which is actively placed wrong information.”

And that information crisis has exacerbated the health crisis, said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School. Here, Chakravorti talks about how government leaders can help communicate a coherent message by bringing together experts from different fields. 

Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at The Fletcher School, talks about how New Zealand’s leaders set a good example for pandemic communications.

COVID-19’s disparate effects on health, livelihoods, and education are still being revealed.

Every day we learn of more inequities exposed by the pandemic. Tess Ganaway, a PhD student in the Department of Infectious Disease and Global Health at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said that prior to the pandemic, women worldwide took on three times the amount of unpaid care labor as their partners. “With school closures, daycare limitations, and the movement of the workplace to the virtual space, this has pushed women out of the workforce even more than their male counterparts,” with four times as many American women as men leaving in September, she said.

Economist William Masters, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, said that the way the food system turned on a dime was remarkable. Americans went from spending about half their food budget away from home to buying almost exclusively from grocery stores, rather than restaurants. “That happened astonishingly smoothly thanks to the ability of our system to switch back and forth between sources,” he said.

Where the food system fell flat, however, was in its ability to protect jobs and the health of workers. “That’s really where we failed,” Masters said. Here he describes those most affected:

William Masters, a Friedman School professor, talks about the pandemic’s effects on marginalized workers in the food industry.

Not surprisingly, said Natasha Warikoo, professor of sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences, the pandemic has been bad for educational equity. In September, two thirds of Black and Latinx students in Massachusetts were in districts that started remotely.

When given a choice between in-person and remote learning, Black, Latino and low-income families are more likely to choose remote learning, she said. The reasons are many, including a fear of the medical system, less trust in the school system, more pre-existing conditions, and more intergenerational families. Disadvantaged families are also less likely to have a parent at home who can help with assignments, and older children are more likely to have siblings to look after.

“In the beginning of the pandemic we thought, ‘Oh my god, the digital divide,’” she said. “I don’t think that problem is solved, but in some ways that’s the easy problem, to get everybody internet access and a device…I feel that we have so many more challenges that exist even when we have one device for every child.”

At the same time, she has seen one silver lining, and it has to do with how students are admitted to exam schools.

Natasha Warikoo, professor of sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences, says the pandemic has been bad for educational equity, with one unexpected upside.

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