Coronavirus Is Our Future | Alanna Shaikh | TEDxSMU

by birtanpublished on June 30, 2020

Transcriber: Theresa Ranft
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven

I want to lead here

by talking a little bit about
my credentials to bring this up with you,

because, quite honestly,
you really, really should not listen

to any old person
with an opinion about COVID-19

(Laughter)

So, I've been working
in global health for about 20 years,

and my specific technical specialty
is in health systems

and what happens when health systems
experience severe shocks

I've also worked
in global-health journalism

I've written about
global health and biosecurity

for newspapers and web outlets,

and I published a book a few years back

about the major global health threats
facing us as a planet

I have supported and led
epidemiology efforts

that range from evaluating
Ebola treatment centers

to looking at transmission
of tuberculosis in health facilities

and doing avian influenza preparedness

I have a master's degree
in International Health

I'm not physician I'm not a nurse

My specialty isn't patient care
or taking care of individual people

My specialty is looking at populations
and health systems –

what happens when diseases
move on the large level

If we're ranking sources
of global-health expertise

on a scale of 1 to 10 –

1 is some random person
ranting on Facebook,

and 10 is the World Health Organization –

I'd say you can probably
put me at like a 7 or an 8

So, keep that in mind as I talk to you

I'll start with the basics here

because I think that's gotten lost

in some of the media noise
around COVID-19

So, COVID-19 is a coronavirus,

and coronaviruses
are a specific subset of virus,

and they have some
unique characteristics as viruses

They use RNA instead of DNA
as their genetic material,

and they're covered in spikes
on the surface of the virus,

and they use those spikes to invade cells

Those spikes are the corona
in coronavirus

COVID-19 is known as a novel coronavirus

because, until December,
we'd only heard of six coronaviruses

COVID-19 is the seventh

It's new to us,

it just had its gene sequencing,
it just got its name –

that's why it's novel

If you remember SARS –
severe acute respiratory syndrome –

or MERS – Middle East
respiratory syndrome,

those were coronaviruses,

and they're both called
respiratory syndromes

because that's what coronaviruses do

They go for your lungs

Don't make you puke,

they don't make you bleed
from the eyeballs,

they don't make you hemorrhage,
they head for your lungs

COVID-19 is no different

It causes a range of respiratory symptoms

that go from stuff
like a dry cough and a fever

all the way out to fatal viral pneumonia

And that range of symptoms
is one of the reasons

it's actually been so hard
to track this outbreak

Plenty of people get COVID-19,

but so gently, their symptoms are so mild

that they don't even go
to a health care provider

They don't register in the system

Children, in particular,
have it very easy with COVID-19,

which is something
we should all be grateful for

Coronaviruses are zoonotic,

which means that they transmit
from animals to people

Some coronaviruses, like COVID-19,
also transmit person to person

The person-to-person ones
travel faster and travel farther,

just like COVID-19

Zoonotic illnesses
are really hard to get rid of

because they have an animal reservoir

One example is avian influenza,

where we can abolish it
in farmed animals,

in turkeys, in ducks,

but it keeps coming back every year
because it's brought to us by wild birds

You don't hear a lot about it

because avian influenza
doesn't transmit person to person,

but we have outbreaks in poultry farms
every year all over the world

COVID-19 most likely skipped
from animals into people

at a wild animal market in Wuhan, China

Now for the less basic parts

This is not the last major outbreak
we're ever going to see

There's going to be more outbreaks,
and there's going to be more epidemics

That's not a maybe; that's a given

And it's a result of the way
that we, as human beings,

are interacting with our planet

Human choices are driving us
into a position

where we're going to see more outbreaks

Part of that is about climate change
and the way a warming climate

makes the world more hospitable
to viruses and bacteria

But it's also about the way we're pushing
into the last wild spaces on our planet

When we burn and plow
the Amazon rain forest

so that we can have
cheap land for ranching,

when the last of the African bush
gets converted into farms,

when wild animals in China
are hunted to extinction,

human beings come into contact
with wildlife populations

that they've never come
into contact with before,

and those populations
have new kinds of diseases:

bacteria, viruses –
stuff we're not ready for

Bats, in particular,
have a knack for hosting illnesses

that can infect people

But they're not
the only animals that do it

So as long as we keep making
our remote places less remote,

the outbreaks are going to keep coming

We can't stop the outbreaks
with quarantine or travel restrictions

That's everybody's first impulse:

Let's stop the people from moving,
let's stop this outbreak from happening

But the fact is it's really hard to get
a good quarantine in place

It's really hard
to set up travel restrictions

Even the countries that have made
serious investments in public health,

like the US and South Korea,

can't get that kind of restriction
in place fast enough

to actually stop an outbreak instantly

There's logistical reasons for that,
and there's medical reasons

If you look at COVID-19,

right now, it's seems
like it could have a period

where you're infected
and show no symptoms

that's as long as 24 days

So people are walking around
with this virus

showing no signs

They're not going to get quarantined

Nobody knows they need quarantining

There's also some real costs
to quarantine and to travel restrictions

Humans are social animals,

and they resist when you try
to hold them into place

and when you try to separate them

We saw in the Ebola outbreak

that as soon as you put
a quarantine in place,

people start trying to evade it

Individual patients, if they know
there's a strict quarantine protocol,

may not go for health care

because they're afraid
of the medical system,

or they can't afford care,

and they don't want to be separated
from their family and friends

Politicians, government officials,

when they know they're going
to get quarantined,

if they talk about outbreaks and cases,

may conceal real information

for fear of triggering
a quarantine protocol

And, of course, these kinds
of evasions and dishonesty

are exactly what makes it so difficult
to track a disease outbreak

We can get better at quarantines
and travel restrictions,

and we should

But they're not our only option,

and they're not our best option
for dealing with these situations

The real way for the long haul
to make outbreaks less serious

is to build the global health system

to support core health-care functions
in every country in the world

so that all countries, even poor ones,

are able to rapidly identify and treat
new infectious diseases as they emerge

China's taken a lot of criticism
for its response to COVID-19

But the fact is, What if COVID-19
had emerged in Chad,

which has 35 doctors
for every 100,000 people?

What if it had emerged
in the Democratic Republic of Congo,

which just released its last
Ebola patient from treatment?

The truth is countries like this
don't have the resources

to respond to an infectious disease,

not to treat people

and not to report on it fast enough
to help the rest of the world

I led an evaluation of Ebola
treatment centers in Sierra Leone

And the fact is

that local doctors in Sierra Leone
identified the Ebola crisis very quickly

First as a dangerous,
contagious hemorrhagic virus,

and then as Ebola itself

But having identified it,
they didn't have the resources to respond

They didn't have enough doctors
or hospital beds,

and they didn't have enough information
about how to treat Ebola

or how to implement infection control

Eleven doctors died
in Sierra Leone of Ebola

The country only had 120
when the crisis started

By way of contrast,

Dallas Baylor Medical Center
has more than 1,000 physicians on staff

These are the kinds
of inequities that kill people

First, they kill the poor people
when the outbreaks start,

and then they kill people
all over the world

when the outbreaks spread

If we really want
to slow down these outbreaks

and minimize their impact,

we need to make sure
that every country in the world

has the capacity to identify
new diseases, treat them,

and report about them
so they can share information

COVID-19 is going to be
a huge burden on health systems

I'm not going to talk
about death rates in this talk

because, frankly, nobody can agree
on the COVID-19 death rates right now

But one number we can agree on

is that about 20% of people
infected with COVID-19

are going to need hospitalization

Our US medical system
can just barely cope with that

But what's going to happen in Mexico?

COVID-19 has also revealed
some real weaknesses

in our global health supply chains

Just-in-time ordering LEAN systems
are great when things are going well,

but in a time of crisis, what it means
is we don't have any reserves

If a hospital or a country
runs out of face masks

or personal protective equipment,

there's no big warehouse full of boxes
that we can go to get more

You have to order more from the supplier,
wait for them to produce it,

and you have to wait for them to ship it,
generally, from China

That's a time lag at a time
when it's most important to move quickly

If we'd been perfectly
prepared for COVID-19,

China would have identified
the outbreak faster

They would have been ready
to provide care to infected people

without having to build new buildings

They would have shared
honest information with citizens

so that we didn't see these crazy rumors
spreading on social media in China

And they would have shared information
with global health authorities

so that they could start reporting
to national health systems

and getting ready
for when the virus spread

National health systems
would then have been able

to stockpile the protective
equipment they needed

and train health care providers
on treatment and infection control

We'd have science-based protocols
for what to do when things happen,

like cruise ships have infected patients

And we'd have real information
going out to people everywhere,

so we wouldn't see embarrassing,
shameful incidents as xenophobia,

like Asian-looking people getting attacked
on the street in Philadelphia

But even with all that in place,
we would still have outbreaks

The choices we're making
about how we occupy this planet

make that inevitable

As far as we have an expert consensus
on COVID-19, it's this:

here in the US and globally,

it's going to get worse
before it gets better

We're seeing cases of human transmission

that aren't from returning travel,

that are just happening
in the community

And we're seeing people
infected with COVID-19

when we don't even know
where the infection came from

Those are signs of an outbreak
that's getting worse,

not an outbreak that's under control

It's depressing, but it's not surprising

Global health experts, when they talk
about the scenario of new viruses,

this is one of the scenarios
that they look at

We all hoped we'd get off easy

But when experts talk
about viral planning,

this is the kind of situation and the way
they expect the virus to move

I want to close here
with some personal advice

Wash your hands!

Wash your hands a lot!

I know you already wash your hands a lot
because you're not disgusting

But wash your hands even more

Set up cues and routines in your life
to get you to wash your hands

Wash your hands every time
you enter and leave a building

Wash your hands when you go in
and come out of a meeting

Get rituals there
based around handwashing

Sanitize your phone

You touch that phone with your dirty,
unwashed hands all the time

I know you take it
into the bathroom with you

(Laughter)

So, sanitize your phone

and consider not using it
as often in public

Maybe TikTok and Instagram
could be home things only?

Don't touch your face

Don't rub your eyes

Don't bite your fingernails

Don't wipe your nose
on the back of your hand

I mean, don't do that anyway
because it's gross

(Laughter)

Don't wear a face mask

Face masks are for sick people
and health care providers

If you're sick, your face mask holds in
all your coughing and sneezing

and protects the people around you

And if you're a health care provider,

your face mask is one tool

in a set of tools called
personal protective equipment,

that you're trained to use
so you can give patient care

and not get sick yourself

If you're a regular, healthy person
wearing a face mask,

it's just making your face sweaty

(Laughter)

Leave the face masks in stores

for the doctors and the nurses
and the sick people

If you think you have
symptoms of COVID-19,

stay home, call your doctor for advice

If you're diagnosed with COVID-19,

remember, it's generally very mild

And if you're a smoker,

right now is the best
possible time to quit smoking

I mean, if you're a smoker,

right now is always the best
possible time to quit smoking

But if you're a smoker
and you're worried about COVID-19,

I guarantee that quitting
is absolutely the best thing you can do

to protect yourself
from the worst impacts of COVID-19

COVID-19 is scary stuff

at a time when pretty much
all of our news feels like scary stuff

And there's a lot of bad
but appealing options for dealing with it:

panic, xenophobia,
agoraphobia, authoritarianism,

oversimplified lies that make us think

that hate and fury and loneliness
are the solution to outbreaks

But they're not,
they just make us less prepared

There's also a boring
but useful set of options

that we can use in response to outbreaks,

things like improving health care,
here and everywhere;

investing in health infrastructure
and disease surveillance

so that we know
when the new diseases come;

building health systems
all over the world;

looking at strengthening our supply chains

so they're ready for emergencies;

and better education, so we're capable
of talking about disease outbreaks

and the mathematics of risk

without just blind panic

We need to be guided by equity here

because in this situation, like so many,

equity is actually
in our own self-interest

So, thank you so much
for listening to me today,

and can I be the first one to tell you:

wash your hands
when you leave the theater

(Applause)

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