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Understanding Public Health Dynamics in the Face of Uncertainty and the Unknown - Briefing Note N°2

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For the time being, until a treatment or a vaccine are found, only a person’s immune system is capable of eliminating the SARS-CoV-2 virus from their body. This is generally very effective and explains why morbidity and mortality are so low, as a percentage of all cases. However, at the beginning of the pandemic, in contrast to seasonal influenza, not one single immune system was familiar with the virus. This explains the high absolute numbers for morbidity and mortality compared to seasonal influenza. COVID-19 particularly affects over-60s and people with associated pathologies, such as lung disease or heart disease.

Based on current knowledge, the only way to completely avoid death is by implementing nonmedical measures to stop the virus from spreading. Absolute protection depends on the adoption of appropriate preventative behavior, but ensuring that people adopt such behavior is beyond the role of the medical sector.

As the virus has a very high transmission capacity, and a large proportion of carriers are presymptomatic or asymptomatic, everybody needs to be considered a potential transmitter of the disease. As a result, prevention is the only way to really protect ourselves from the virus. Different societies need to decide what prevention measures are the most appropriate, based on what is socially realistic, economically viable, susceptible to be put in place rapidly and applicable to the vast majority of the population. As such, community-based organizations have an important role to play in promoting preventative behavior.

Uncertainty is a major source of stress. There is an urgent need to improve the level of awareness in the media and social networks in order to reduce the amount of insufficiently verified information that is circulated. Avoiding doom-mongering headlines makes it easier to promote preventative behavior among the general public – and the authorities.
Clearer communication about our complete dependence on a few well-selected prevention measures will help to protect economies and people’s health, even for those located ‘deep in the bush’. This change in behavior is the best investment we can make, especially for the most vulnerable population groups. We will continue to reap the benefits even after a vaccine has been found, due to the risks of the virus mutating and the existence of other airborne diseases.