Michael Crowley, EMEA Director Public Sector and Healthcare
For almost 12 months now, the Coronavirus crisis has presented some tricky scenarios at the door of governments around the world.
The measures we have seen – ranging from rapid development of field hospitals, testing sites and quarantine centres to economic stimulus schemes hitting tax, VAT and employee salaries – mean that whatever happens in the coming months or years, we are not going from a standing start. But certainly, what governments have learnt from the pandemic – both in success and failure – is paramount to shaping our response should we be in a similar situation in the future.
The Ebola early warning
The reason this is so important is that COVID itself wasn’t – or shouldn’t have been – a surprise. We’ve all seen the Bill Gates video from 2015 predicting a global pandemic of this nature. But more recently, the Ebola crisis was a real and stark warning to what such a virus could do. And while that proved something of a false dawn, it certainly informed governments how to act and react in the situation.
It is perhaps unsurprising to note that the leading nation on combating Ebola was Germany. It was one of the few countries to have implemented a plan to federate resources. Back then, as was the case in the early days of COVID, nations were looking to the World Health Organisation (WHO) for guidance, but its role is to inform on a global scale, not resolve on a national one. The upshot being that the responsibility to address pandemics has been at a country level.
Unfortunately, the virus is no respecter of borders and with a globally fragmented approach to addressing it, the likelihood of a return is almost inevitable.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
So, what’s a government to do? It feels somewhat over simplistic to state that being more resistant and ready is required. But the adages around ‘preparation’ exist for a reason. Combating similar outbreaks in the years ahead needs organisations and departments working together in a federated response. There are, unfortunately, many examples of oversights relating to this around Europe from the early stages of the virus. For instance, in France, public health took the lead but didn’t include private hospitals in its initial plan because the technology was not in place for this to be possible. We’re seeing it again today with the vaccine roll-out.
Going back to Germany, one of its major learnings from Ebola was that all information has to be available, easy to access and free. It means having all the required applications on a device or laptop to see the data and reduce the circulation of infected patients.
In that regard, what COVID-19 has changed and what may be a major help to the government is the shift to people working from home whenever they can. It was a change thrust upon the world and, while it had been mooted for some time, many organisations were simply not prepared. In fact, a recent report from Carbon Black found that COVID-19 has been accompanied by a surge in cyberattacks: more than half (53%) of all respondents encountered or observed an increase related to the pandemic. They pointed to remote access inefficiencies (52%), VPN vulnerabilities (45%) and staff shortages (36%) as the most daunting endpoint security challenges in this regard.
A good example is one Ministry of Defence, which sent 50,000 people home as they couldn’t work in the offices. Due to high security and sensitivity of information those employees were not provided remote access to email or conference calls and had to work from a mobile. Something that was grossly inefficient and placed major stress on the department and staff. While this was one singular department in one country, the message to the government is clear and stark: Understand your resources and align the requirements to the objective.
A requirement of resilience
It all points to a requirement of resilience. The ability to get back to normal (or new normal) quickly. But doing so requires clarity of thinking, planning and a trade-off between degradation of services – which in certain aspects of national infrastructure is unavoidable, like the emergency services.
This resilience is not a nice-to-have but a critical part of a nation’s sovereignty and for governments, this means the ability to mobilise services across the organisation. If a nation’s supply of anything – from PPE or vaccines, to cloud storage – is located on the other side of the world, there is much less control over access, production and deployment if there is a surge in activity. We saw many examples of governments actually left wanting as they didn’t have contracts in place or the agility to develop their own applications quickly enough.
Governments need control and for this they need strategic autonomy, but this has been conspicuous by its absence throughout this crisis. When it comes to looking ahead, it will be critical for governments to leverage technologies to help prevent the spread of disease once more. We’ve seen the inconsistent and intermittent approach to track and trace app development and wild variations in the public mood about their acceptance of it. And this is just one example. But this is where governments need to be coherent and transparent, striking the balance between sharing information and protecting citizens. People will put up with being tracked or inconvenienced for a while if they can clearly see degradation in the system but not in perpetuity. The clamour to get hospitals back to operations and treatments of wider ailments is a case in point.
It means that the rapid development of applications should be on the radar of the government, to have all the elements ready to fire when required. Time is of the essence and these applications tend to be most needed in the early phases. Looking back to the early days of COVID, many of our services are automated but the closure of schools, banks, GPs and other services was hugely impacted. This simply cannot be allowed to happen again.
Federation of fragmented resource
The federation of fragmented resources at the right place and the right time is the key.
Governments need a systematic plan with a predefined perimeter covering all the major and most likely impacts, such as reduced citizen services and impacted healthcare access. This will inform the best response and process of both action and reaction. But above all, governments need to be dealing with situations from a solid, considered and widely accepted base so that the agility and ability to respond to situations quickly is not compromised.
This requires an IT infrastructure, like cloud architecture, to help federate these resources and enable the requirement to move them as required. Perhaps if we are nimble, co-ordinated, decisive and efficient we can ensure no repeat of 2020 for any future outbreaks.