News, Culture & Society

Leaders simulated a pandemic and we’re not ready

The world is not ready for an ‘inevitable’ pandemic, according to the World Bank after simulating four global outbreaks. 

In a series of 90-minute sessions, ministers from 12 countries as well as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tackled ‘realistic’ hypothetical scenarios of a deadly disease crossing borders, tracking news and social media.

It is an attempt to assess why the global response to 2014’s Ebola outbreak was so sloppy, and to fill those gaps before another disaster strikes. 

But senior figures involved in the simulations have told the Washington Post we are not ready. 

One of the biggest flaws, experts said, is an outdated approach to social media, and the fact that agencies are not accustomed – or not eager – to embrace a culture of publishing information and updates in real time as the general public does.  

The four simulations in the last year are part of a broad attempt to assess why the global response to 2014’s Ebola outbreak was so sloppy (pictured: Red Cross workers in Monrovia)

‘We’re frankly not ready for a medium-sized [pandemic],’ Ron Klain, President Obama’s chief of staff who acted as the Ebola czar during the epidemic three years ago, told the newspaper, when asked if we could handle a global one.

Tim Evans, senior director for health, nutrition and population at the World Bank, agreed with Klain, adding: ‘We realized that people were just making it up as they were going along, including us.’

But he warned that the bank is trying to ‘prepare much more systematically to be ready for the 100 percent probability we will be dealing with this again. Probably sooner than we expect.’ 

The issues are so far-reaching it is hard to pinpoint specific targets, experts said. 

However, chief among them is an outdated approach to social media.

According to the Post, the latest simulation – held at the World Bank’s annual meeting this month – involved a hypothetical Instagram post about a cruise ship worker infected with a deadly disease (similar to a situation that happened during the Ebola outbreak). 

Ministers were tasked with reacting to the post by coordinating with the relevant ministers in other departments and countries, as well as making public service announcement to protect the general public and control the threat. 

Klain told the Post that seemed to be the underlying problem: government agencies did not know how to use ‘non-traditional communication methods’ – such as social media and WhatsApp – to impart information in a fluid and speedy way. 

Agencies also seemed hamstrung by the culture of sporadic (i.e. once-daily) updates, rather than to-the-minute updates, regardless of the hour of the day. 

Nations are also hampered by fears of denting tourism. 

During the Ebola epidemic, government officials in outbreak zones were accused of drip-feeding information, for fear of what such a catastrophic outbreak could do to their economy. 

A similar accusation was leveled at Puerto Rico last year during the Zika outbreak, when the rate of official cases of Zika diagnoses was far lower than hospitals and newspapers were reporting. 

The World Bank has not publicly shared its advice for remedying these disconnects between nations and agencies, and all of the simulations are done off-the-record. 

There have been four in the past year – one at last year’s World Bank meeting, one in Switzerland in collaboration with the Gates foundation in January, one at the G20 summit in July, and the latest at this year’s World Bank meeting. 

Experts expect another four, if not more, in the next year amid rising rates of antibiotic resistance and looming fears of a deadly influenza outbreak.  


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