Position Statement No. 13: Lessons from the pandemic: strengthen health care, invest in science and education, and build trust

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, many breakthrough discoveries have been made, including the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, which has turned the containment of the pandemic into a realistic goal. In order to accomplish this goal, however, we must learn the lessons of what we have found out about the state and its institutions, as well as about ourselves. 

We can already draw two fundamentally important conclusions. First of all, to tackle the challenges posed by the pandemic, we must have a robust health-care system and independent institutions responsible for collecting and analyzing data on epidemic threats, and we must invest in science and education. Secondly, we must strengthen solidarity in society so that its members follow the standards of safe behavior, work together, and take action for the public good.

Author: Rido/Shutterstock.com

I. Robust and independent institutions are needed

Lesson 1: Invest in modern health care

The pandemic has laid bare the weaknesses and shortcomings of the health care system. If it had not been for extraordinary dedication on the part of medical professionals, the toll taken by the virus would have been far greater. The absence of strategic preparation, sudden organizational changes, staff shortages worsened by the pandemic, shortages of basic personal protective equipment and beds with ventilators and access to oxygen, significant reductions in the availability of non-COVID-19 care, and long wait times for health-care services all show that Poland’s health system was and still is dramatically unprepared to deal with the pandemic and needs profound reforms.

In the short term, improving the functioning of the health system requires better planning and communication in hospital management. In the long run, it will be necessary to increase the number of medical professionals and provide adequate funding. Today, public funding for health care accounts for about 4.5% of GDP. This is not enough. The EU average is nearly 8% of GDP, with such countries as Germany and Sweden spending over 9% of their GDPs on this goal. Underfunded health care means a low quality of life for citizens. Health-care services are not a bottomless pit, but one of the best investments in the prosperity of the state and the well-being of its citizens.

Lesson 2: Build professional and independent expert institutions in the field of public health

The pandemic has also exposed the weakness of epidemic prevention and control institutions, including staff shortages, as well as insufficient organization and management of data on infections. Acutely felt examples include the lack of adequate research and modern epidemiological models dedicated to the needs of public health. In this respect, many countries have independent public health institutes. For this reason, the emergency management system in Poland operated without access to necessary information and without a long-term strategy. It is necessary to establish a network of independent and interdisciplinary expert teams or institutions that would provide reliable analyses for public health purposes. Such a system of independent experts and institutions improves the monitoring of the authorities by the public and ensures that the actions being taken are transparent and rational. Recommendations made by independent experts and scientists as well as representatives of universities and research institutes should therefore be a permanent element of the state’s activities taken in response to and during epidemics.

Lesson 3: Provide experts with access to data

Administrative resources and research data should be made available in a structured manner with clear policies on their usage, optimally in the form of a public repository. Such resources require data quality control, effective management, and coordination. The scientific community and those responsible for IT systems in health care should work together to find a suitable solution. Source data and research findings should be made available to the public. Professional data collection and transparent access policies would make it possible to use the experience and knowledge of external experts.

Lesson 4: Invest in science and education

The pandemic has made us see the importance of science and decisions based on the results of scientific research. For this reason, scientific research, especially in the area of public health, should be treated as a priority and should receive adequate funding. It is likewise necessary to take action to build confidence in science, for example through clear communication of research findings to the public. Also, the public must be made aware of the fact that scientific knowledge is constantly evolving, and discussions and disagreements are something normal and beneficial in the world of science, because they bring us closer to the truth.

The pandemic has made us aware of the importance of education for the proper development of humans and society. The adverse psychological and educational effects of long-term school closures on children and adolescents may be very serious and last much longer than the pandemic itself. They will most likely affect the public’s mental state and competences in the future. Experts agree that school closures should be the last measure to be adopted, after other restrictions are implemented.

The pandemic has also demonstrated that the weakness of Polish school lies in the curriculum overload, the rigid system of education, and the focus on the conveying of information. The Polish education system has been unable to cope with the pandemic, and this fact has an adverse educational impact on children.  Education is the foundation of today’s knowledge-based economy.

II. A solidary-based society is needed

Lesson 5: Build trust

People must trust institutions and one another and the government must trust society for a success to be achieved not only in the fight against a pandemic, but in the conditions of any crisis. The competence of the government authorities and public institutions, in turn, is the key condition for building this trust. “Politicizing” the virus, taking action to deliberately create conflicts, showing arrogance, and ignoring the rules imposed on the rest of society have all led to the fact that the second wave of COVID-19 infections in the fall had such tragic consequences in Poland. We did not even get a passing grade on this test, and we are about to face a third wave.

The less people trust the recommendations formulated by the government institutions, the worse the expected outcome of the fight against the pandemic. Separating the debate about the pandemic and the decisions made by public administration bodies from ongoing politics will help to increase trust. We should monitor the actions of politicians and vote for those who are able to keep health care and current politics separate.

Lesson 6: Work together for the common good

Other people are important for each of us to function well. They not only satisfy our need to belong, which is important for all of us, but also serve as a source of values, self-esteem, and inspiration. Our lives are fuller thanks to others. We should nurture the relationships we have with others and look after others. In this way, we can also look after ourselves.

The pandemic has also taught us that working together is important in every sphere of our lives. In the economic sphere, it is necessary to formulate fair rules for the distribution of protective equipment and vaccines. In the political sphere, we need involvement in the development of fair solutions in the EU and across the globe so that national and global goals complement each other. In the social sphere, individual protective efforts will not be effective if others ignore them. Only together can we defeat the virus. This also means that we should look after the underprivileged, minority groups, and those at risk of social exclusion to a greater extent than before.

During the pandemic, we have learned how much depends on our behavior, even if institutions are ineffective. We can eliminate many uncertainties and threats by strictly following the recommendations, mostly by acting in keeping with the simple rule known as DDM (distance, disinfection, and masks). But we must show solidarity in these actions – in the interests of not only all of us as a group but also each of us individually. For example, this means that “free riding” is not worth it – we should not think that it is enough if others get vaccinated, because this means that we will be safe as well. If many people think this way, no one will be safe.

Lesson 7: Learn to live with the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic will stay with us for a long time to come. We must learn how to live with the virus and stay safe. We should therefore create innovative solutions in the public sphere. Based on what we know today, the COVID-19 vaccine offers effective protection against symptomatic COVID-19 infections. In order to prevent the transmission of the virus, we may be required to keep appropriate social distance for a long time. Therefore, those who construct, design, and organize public life should find innovative solutions regarding means of transportation, public institutions, and personal protective equipment that will allow compliance with epidemic prevention and control recommendations without being overly burdensome for social life. Enormous European resources available under the recovery fund should support such innovations.

Lesson 8: Make political choices with long-term goals in mind

The pandemic has highlighted the weaknesses in society, leadership, and state institutions. Now is the time to learn our lessons. Failure to do so will cost us dearly in the future. We should engage in a debate on such important issues as health care, education, and science. We should evaluate politicians and their platforms based on concrete proposals to improve the situation in these spheres of public life.

About the team

The Interdisciplinary COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences was set up on 30 June 2020. The team is chaired by Prof. Jerzy Duszyński, President of the PAS, with Prof. Krzysztof Pyrć (Jagiellonian University) as deputy chair and Dr. Anna Plater-Zyberk (Polish Academy of Sciences) as its secretary.

Other members of the team are:

  • Dr. Aneta Afelt (University of Warsaw)
  • Prof. Małgorzata Kossowska (Jagiellonian University)
  • Prof. Radosław Owczuk, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)
  • Dr. Anna Ochab-Marcinek (PAS Institute of Physical Chemistry)
  • Dr. Wojciech Paczos (PAS Institute of Economics, Cardiff University)
  • Dr. Magdalena Rosińska, MD (National Institute for Public Health – National Hygiene Institute, Warsaw)
  • Prof. Andrzej Rychard (PAS Institute of Philosophy and Sociology)
  • Dr. Tomasz Smiatacz, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)