With winter approaching, and the threat of another wave of Covid infections, it seemed a good time to check in with Este Geraghty, coeditor of a recent book from Esri Press titled Learning from COVID-19: GIS for Pandemics.
Q. Your book is called Learning from COVID-19. What are the most important lessons you think the global health community has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?
A. The world learned that COVID-19 had the power to impact just about every aspect of our daily lives, from education and professional aspects to social and financial aspects. This should have significant future influence on how public health is funded and appreciated.
We were not prepared. There are several reasons for this, including but not limited to understaffed public health departments, incomplete or unused pandemic plans, lack of clear leadership and guidance at the highest levels, and outdated technologies.
On the positive side, we learned that we could get a lot done when we all work together, unified by a common purpose. Tremendous innovations happened during the pandemic—many of them shared in the book. And of course, I believe that global health professionals learned that GIS is critical to pandemic response.
Q. On the other hand, what are the most significant failures in the global response to COVID-19 that you’re afraid we might see repeated in subsequent pandemics?
A. Considering this response actually makes me feel a little sick because I am truly afraid that we’ve not yet taken enough serious actions to significantly advance our capabilities in the future.
We’ve failed in standardizing data. While national and international data standards exist, too many are not following those standards. This is partly why 90% of the effort in any analytic process is data cleansing. Lack of broad data standardization makes us slower and less accurate.
A huge challenge for the future is improving our ability and willingness to share data. In health, this is not a simple idea. The process is complicated by the sensitivity of health data and privacy rules as well as secure data sharing technologies. We need to figure out the governance policies for broader data sharing in general and especially in emergencies.
I also worry that all the innovations (including GIS) could be lost if they are not incorporated into other regular program needs and maintained through ongoing training and practice drills.
Q. Do you think that, with over a million deaths from COVID-19 to date, the US health authorities and systems are better prepared and equipped for the next pandemic?
A. Experience is the best teacher, so yes, of course, I think we’re better prepared. Unfortunately, though, I do not think that our advancements in preparedness and response are proportional to the need and the intensity of this crisis. A significant issue is our general tendency to focus on treatment rather than prevention. It’s the wrong approach. Both ends of the health spectrum are critical to support and strengthen. We must have the leadership to provide public health agencies with the resources and authority needed to vigorously apply the principles of public health across our global communities.
Q. Where do you think the next pandemic will come from?
A. Pandemics most often originate from a pathogen that is transferred from an animal to a human, so zoonotic transmission should be the key concern. That said, it is impossible to predict where or when that will happen. It’s a random event. That’s why better surveillance is critical.
Not long ago, our president, Jack Dangermond, spoke about GIS enabling a holistic perspective to problem-solving with a ‘one world ecosystem’ approach. This is something that geography is uniquely suited to manage. In health we have a similar idea called One Health. This is the overlap of human health, animal health, and environmental health. GIS can improve our disease surveillance in many ways, including taking a One Health approach to monitor emerging threats from zoonotic transmission.
Perhaps the recent monkeypox outbreak is an indicator that we didn’t learn as much as we should have from COVID-19. We can and should do better. Maybe our book can help. Part of the value of Learning from COVID-19 is that it covers such a broad range of use cases. Going forward, I hope these examples will inspire greater use of GIS for continued COVID-19 response, future preparedness planning, and other health challenges.
Learn more about Este Geraghty’s book Learning from COVID-19: GIS for Pandemics, including viewing sample pages and watching the book’s trailer here.
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