By Leslie Raimondo, Senior Vice President at Booz Allen Hamilton and Samer Abi Chaker, Senior Associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, MENA
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, nations around the world—including those of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—remain focused on containing the spread of the virus, protecting public health, mitigating economic impact, and actioning a safe and gradual return to a “new normal.” However, until a vaccine is developed and mass-distributed (it is worth noting that the UAE started the world’s first phase III clinical trial of a COVID-19 vaccine), governments will be forced to juggle competing priorities as they focus on controlling the virus.
As the GCC transitions to recovery, National Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (HEPR) evaluation and improvement should be tackled with similar decisiveness. Booz Allen has developed eight key recommendations for GCC countries.
1 Evaluate and address immediate recovery needs
Having seen serious illness and death up close, large sections of the GCC population may experience lingering health effects and frontline health workers may also experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Accordingly, social and health institutions should consider setting up mental health and social support programs that include family counseling, child protection, access to safe food and medical supplies, and even mortgage relief for laid-off employees.
Certain sectors may require economic recovery programs. Any stimulus, however, needs to be paired with rebuilding confidence of all stakeholders in the safety of resuming daily business and leisure activities. This can be done by demonstrating steady advances in testing capacity, trustworthy contact tracing capabilities, vaccine and treatment development, and implementing occupational health guidelines.
2 Re-assess healthcare capacities and capabilities
The scale and speed of COVID-19 outbreaks suggests a need for all nations to re-evaluate their healthcare systems’ capacity to continue providing consistent, high quality medical care even when stretched beyond capacity. Re-assessment will need to consider factors such as potential fluctuation in demand, upskilling to overcome personnel shortages, maintaining and upgrading essential clinical facilities, engaging the private sector as an important stakeholder in crisis response, and expanding or repurposing local manufacturing capabilities for PPE and other critical HEPR supplies.
Strengthen coordination between stakeholders
Health emergencies generally require extensive coordination between diverse players with different ways of operating, such as ministries of health, defense and internal security, healthcare providers, civil defense, police, and emergency medical transport. To ensure they act in concert, HEPR plans should be re-assessed for standardization, stating clear governance and decision-making processes as well as well-defined tasks, roles, and mandates to avoid misalignment.
4 Develop HEPR-specific ICT and data management standards
Improving emergency responses requires guaranteed interoperability and easy information sharing between relevant HEPR players. During recovery, it is important to consider rolling out specialized Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and data management standards. An HEPR data dictionary that provides a unified definition of applicable terms should be developed and distributed as an essential starting point for subsequent data management standardization efforts. Advanced contact tracing, for instance, requires ICT compatibility and a shared approach to data management among all stakeholders.
5 Strengthen health emergency funding
Assessing the cost-effectiveness and adequacy of current HEPR funding mechanisms within the context of COVID-19 response is vital. Dedicated funding mechanisms for HEPR systems and activities can be used to fund emergency response activities and surge capacity across healthcare providers, as well as to promote and incentivize overall readiness among all HEPR players. Ideally, two separate but complementary funding mechanisms should be considered: A “Disaster Relief Fund” to finance surge capacity and sustain critical response and recovery measures and a “Readiness Budget” used to incentivize readiness across HEPR stakeholders.
6 Revise priorities in National Risk Registers
To better prepare for future outbreaks, two key components of national risk assessments need to be updated. First, the likelihood of occurrence – considering major upcoming events attracting tourists such Dubai Expo 2020 (now postponed to 2021) or KSA’s Hajj and Umrah pilgrims. Second, the potential impact, considering factors such as forecasted population growth, vulnerable communities, mortality rate of the disease, and transmissibility.
Given that risk assessment analyses always have a significant degree of uncertainty, this can be mitigated by involving a panel of experts from diverse backgrounds including epidemiologists, public health experts, clinicians, general scientists, and academics. Such multidisciplinary panels help derive much more robust likelihood and impact scores as the experts’ experience complement mathematical estimations.
7 Explore disaster-specific laws
Based on the results of updated National risk registers, GCC countries may want to consider enacting or modifying existing pandemic-specific legislation to help support disaster management efforts. Useful examples can be found in other countries. South Korea’s exemplary management of COVID-19 stemmed from laws that were amended after the 2015 MERS outbreak. Japan, for instance, given its history of devastating disasters, also issued specialized legislation to guide HEPR efforts.
8 Test capabilities through strategic simulations
Enhanced HEPR systems should be tested for efficacy and potential improvement. Recent advances in wargaming, tabletop exercises, and other forms of strategic simulation are particularly suited to evaluating strengths and weaknesses of collaborations that span sectors—like public health, defense, and internal security authorities working together to contain disasters and protect high-risk populations and geographies.
As GCC nations transition to the “new normal”, taking stock of the above recommendations is vital to evaluate performance, identify weaknesses, and develop tailored interventions for their HEPR systems.