3 Ways International Intelligence Can Help Prepare for the Next Pandemic

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An Interview with Rollie Lal from the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

One of the clearest needs and challenges to surface in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is how to gather and communicate reliable intelligence and information. Even as containment and relief efforts are still being developed and deployed in our current crisis, there is a critical need to take steps for combatting the next global health crisis. Whether it is a dramatic resurgence of COVID-19 or a new threat in the years to come, intelligence for predicting pandemics and responding to them will be invaluable. 

What can we do now to prepare? Since there is so little consensus in current opinion or policy about how to handle COVID-19, it’s unlikely that any one proposed solution for the future can garner broad international support. However, there are three things that governments, scientists, communities, and even citizen volunteers can do to strengthen international intelligence efforts to combat the next pandemic.

1. Establish Documented Facts about the Current Crisis

There is an overwhelming amount of data accumulating about the current pandemic. There is also widespread disparity about what data is collected in a given country or region and how accurate that data may be, in the end. 

How many people have died as a result of COVID-19 and related health complications? How many individuals have actually contracted the virus? These are perhaps the most basic and vital baseline statistics, but estimates continue to vary widely and there is forceful debate about how this should be measured.

Rollie Lal, Associate Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs where she teaches graduate courses on Transnational Security, Foreign Policy, and International Political Economy, explains why such vital statistics will matter in the days ahead:

“The facts about the number of deaths and number of cases are beginning to concern me because we have groups in the US, and even the president, now, saying that the cases may be overstated. Death deniers and conspiracy theorists have more of a platform to call even basic truths about this crisis into question through social media. 

There is a great deal of disparity in the way these things are being tracked. In Belgium, for example, you see a very strict approach to recording these basic statistics, but other countries are keeping very loose track or none at all. We can’t let politicians take control of death numbers. The real danger here is that if you don’t have an agreement on the basic facts of the situation, it will be very difficult to make policies that will have a helpful impact in the future.”

Ideally, there would be dedicated and qualified groups in each country working to gather and interpret the accumulating data in the developing pandemic. The United Nations or World Health Organization have the opportunity to coordinate those efforts and bring those groups together so they can pool their knowledge, establish baseline facts, and equip future policymakers with a reliable understanding of what has happened during COVID-19. 

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Efforts like this from credible organizations will be critical in the future because the COVID-19 pandemic has eroded public trust in the institutions many citizens were counting on in a widespread health crisis. Dr. Lal  explains:

“In the US, for example, in a situation like this, we believed the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was going to save us—just as the characters in the first season of The Walking Dead believed that. I think popular culture can give us a powerful glimpse into our collective imagination and what we expect of government. We created this idea that our government would sort of act as our parents—trust them—they will take care of us. And, obviously, this has proven to be a disappointment as people have lost jobs, gotten sick, and needed support and clear guidance. We’ve lost a sense of confidence in political institutions and even science, and these things will need to be rebuilt in the public psyche. That’s part of what we have to do, moving forward.”

2. Analyze and Synthesize Effective Examples of Leadership into New Models for the Future

Along with disparity in the way records are being kept, there have been a variety of approaches to leadership at the local, state, and national levels. Dr. Lal sees an emerging weakness within something that has traditionally been a benefit or strength in US governance: 

“With all of the information out there, it’s interesting to look at who is getting heard right now. Everyone is looking to their national leader, but strangely enough, the second arbiter of information has been technology. Many people are trying to understand what’s true or false via the internet where hoax theories have spread like wildfire on different platforms. Much of that struggle has been unexpected and leaders are having trouble combating misinformation. In the US where every state and city sort of does their own thing, that wild west mentality hasn’t helped us in this regard. Many of those traits that make America powerful in a normal economy and conditions actually make us weaker in this pandemic.”

How important are leadership factors such as transparency, timely responsiveness, and the roles of medical or scientific experts in decision making? How have the frequency and content of public briefings affected public behavior? What rhetorical strategies from leadership have coincided with effective containment or relief efforts in this pandemic? 

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Answers to questions like these have the potential to inform better models for leadership in the future. International intelligence experts are poised to make a unique contribution to analyzing and understanding the most critical elements of effective leadership and communication in the midst of a crisis. Some positive examples of leadership have already begun to surface. 

For example, many analysts have already praised the efforts of the leadership and citizens of South Korea during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. Their government’s swift and decisive actions, coupled with a unified public response, seem to have averted the dire outbreak and high mortality rates seen elsewhere. South Korea’s efforts are certainly not without criticism and ongoing inquiries about how the poorer citizens have fared without equal access to information may give us a more accurate, holistic picture of what their response has been. 

Meanwhile, in Germany, where the number of confirmed cases skyrocketed in the height of the outbreak in Europe, they have seen a remarkably low mortality rate. Likewise, New Zealand was able to contain, then virtually eliminate the spread of the virus, weather the worst of the outbreak, and now reopen schools and businesses more effectively than most nations. The leadership from Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany and Prime Minister Jacinda in New Zealand, along with other notable successes in Taiwan and Denmark have led to early commendations and evaluations of female leadership at the international level

In the US, Hawaii has emerged as an encouraging model for leadership at the state level. As of April 2020, 22.3 percent of Hawaii’s labor force was unemployed, making it the third-highest in the country. The local economy has been especially hard hit with the plummet in tourism. In spite of unique challenges, Hawaii has been able to mount a transparent, effective response to the pandemic. On June 1, 2020, the state had no new reported cases, no fatalities in a month, and a very strong recovery rate for those infected. 

Some of their success could be due to local intelligence and communication efforts such as Hawaii Data Collaborative and the work of their local government, including Lieutenant Governor, Josh Green (D). Green is uniquely qualified as a spokesperson in this pandemic. He is a veteran emergency room doctor and family physician who served a total of 14 years in the Hawaii State House of Representatives and State Senate before election to his current office in 2018. In the midst of the pandemic, he has posted daily video updates, using a whiteboard to explain and track baseline metrics like new and total cases, deaths, hospital capacity, and updates about relief efforts.

3. Identify Priorities at the Local Community Level

Some of the most important and effective preparation for the next pandemic will involve gathering intelligence at the city and community level and acting on it now to make changes. For example, as schools and families have been forced to suddenly pivot to a distance learning model of education, it has highlighted a general lack of preparedness. Some schools and districts are struggling with poor internet infrastructure and resources. Likewise, many families are caught in a situation where their children don’t have adequate technology to participate in technology-mediated education. 

Disparities and inequitable access to basic resources were already creating advantages and disadvantages for millions of students in the US, and the current crisis is only exacerbating these problems. These are the kinds of issues, however, that local intelligence, grassroots efforts, and concerted campaigns could address in the days ahead. Funds for enhanced infrastructure, new, donated, or refurbished laptops and technology—these are needs that can be identified and addressed within many communities.

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Dr. Lal sees a critical need for intelligence work at the local level to address healthcare.

“We’ve seen the huge need for personal responsibility—wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, doing what trusted scientists and medical professionals tell us. That is the biggest priority right now, but we’ve also seen how COVID-19 highlights the need for Americans to fundamentally rethink things like education and healthcare. 

One of the most absurd things in all of this is that so many have lost health insurance—in the middle of a health crisis—because they’ve also lost their job. The federal government hasn’t been able to figure out a solution for our broken healthcare system, so it’s time communities started asking about what would work for them. Then lobbying for that at the state level. That could make us more resilient the next time this comes around.” 


Equipping Change Agents and Effective Policymakers

More than ever before, those people pursuing international intelligence careers and the policymaking work that shapes and regulates the dissemination of information will have a dramatic impact on our global future.

The Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University is a globally recognized institution for research and academic excellence. With more than a dozen graduate degrees taught by practicing policymaking experts in the heart of Washington D.C., we are equipping the leaders and intelligence specialists who will help us prepare for the next pandemic and all of the other important issues within the international landscape. 

Explore our full list of degree options, including our Master of International Policy and Practice program, designed specifically for driven mid-career professionals who want to make a difference through policy.

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