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A Stress Test for Public Health Systems

Now that the coronavirus has gone global, markets are swooning and the weaknesses of national health systems are being revealed. Like the slower-moving crisis of antimicrobial resistance, the pandemic should alert governments to the need for significantly greater investment in public-health preparedness.

LONDON – On January 25, Chatham House and Georgetown University hosted US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin for a discussion about US economic policymaking and the world. Mnuchin had come straight from the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, but the dominant theme of that gathering (“stakeholder capitalism”) had already been eclipsed by broader developments. The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak had become a massive problem for China and would soon threaten the entire world.

As someone whose career has included work on infectious-disease risks, I had some sympathy with Mnuchin’s comments at Davos, where he pointed out that climate change is not the only policy challenge facing the world today. (I do not, however, support his belittling of the Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg on that same occasion.)

According to the United Kingdom’s 2016 Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), which I chaired, policymakers around the world need to pursue 29 essential interventions in the medium term in order to avoid a costly and deadly global health crisis. Specifically, we warned that in the absence of concerted action, drug-resistant microbes could take around ten million lives per year by 2050, at a cumulative cost to global GDP of around $100 trillion.

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