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A Hybrid Strategy Against Pandemics

In the absence of multilateral or national-level leadership early in the pandemic, social entrepreneurs, academics, and non-profits stepped in to provide decision-makers with the information they needed to protect the public. This new hybrid approach to public health should now be fully realized.

BOSTON – Even before the pandemic, global health systems were overextended, data-poor, and buckling under increasing demand. It is thus little wonder that, despite the best intentions of medical professionals, many governments struggled to respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis.

The initial lack of leadership on basic issues such as mask mandates and travel restrictions proved catastrophic, allowing both the virus and disinformation about it to spread widely. Equally disappointing, vaccine delivery has been piecemeal, with contradictory guidelines and tragic geographical disparities. Despite having a year to plan for the initial vaccine rollout, we are only now holding debates about vaccine passports, equity, and access. Weak global surveillance infrastructure and slow, uncoordinated decision-making have left the world in a state of deep vulnerability, desperate for new ideas and new leadership.

Fortunately, human ingenuity can help to offset these failures, with the social, civil, and private sectors filling the vacuum created by government inaction. Many social entrepreneurs and non-profits are more agile and risk-tolerant than government agencies, and, using data science and artificial intelligence, they have introduced new, streamlined methods of gathering, curating, and distributing information and scientific data. This has enabled them to develop novel population-surveillance mechanisms and early-intervention strategies, which support individuals and communities in making real-time decisions and modifying their behaviors.