Expect the unexpected: the lessons from COVID about public health and preparedness

By on 01/08/2023 | Updated on 16/08/2023
Nathalie Drouin (right, with event facilitator Siobhan Benita): “Course-correct on a regular basis – because sometimes you don’t get it right.”

At the Global Government Summit in Singapore, civil service leaders from 16 countries met to explore five of the biggest challenges facing their countries. In the third session, they discussed public health and resilience in the wake of the pandemic

In this, the third of five reports from the event, we present contributions from Canada’s deputy clerk, Nathalie Drouin, the head of Finland’s Government Strategy Department, Seppo Määttä, and Singapore’s science chief Chan Lai Fung.

Summing up the lessons that she’d learned during the pandemic, Nathalie Drouin, the deputy clerk of Canada’s Privy Council, had a single pithy phrase: “Expect the unexpected!”

This was a message not only for public servants, explained Drouin, but also for the public. When facing a brand new threat such as the novel COVID-19 virus, scientists and public servants can only work with the limited information available – so policies may have to change as new evidence emerges.

“In March 2020, when we were trying to repatriate Canadians stranded, for example, in cruise ships, the science at that time was that you can’t infect anyone if you don’t have symptoms,” she recalled. A few weeks later it became clear that asymptomatic people could be infectious, and the government had to change its advice. Unless public servants are open about the limits of their knowledge and the uncertainties in the science, commented Drouin, such policy shifts can “give traction to misinformation and disinformation”. Governments must have “transparent communication, and course-correct on a regular basis – because sometimes you don’t get it right,” she added.

From 9-to-5 to 24/7

The pandemic also challenged public service working practices, Drouin commented: “We are organised to work five days a week, nine to five – more or less. But that wasn’t the reality during COVID, when we were working 24/7.” The result was widespread exhaustion, she said: perhaps public servants, like health workers, should have use duty rosters to share lead responsibilities during emergencies.

Politicians’ behaviours changed just as much during the pandemic, she explained – with some adapting rapidly to a “rapid responses, rapid announcements” approach to public communications. “I’m not saying that we should go back to the old days, but maybe we should find the right balance between fast and furious decisions and announcements, and a calmer decision-making process,” she commented.

Seppo Määttä: “COVID-19 was not a black swan, because something like this pandemic had been anticipated for a long time.”

Certainly, more longer-term thinking is necessary – not least on how to prepare for future shocks. Seppo Määttä, director general of the Government Strategy Department in the Prime Minister’s Office of Finland, called for public servants to develop an “anticipatory mind: we need to have more dialogue, not only with our own staff and within government, but also with companies and third sector organisations, to get a broader picture of what might happen in the future”.

There is, he added, a debate over whether the pandemic was a “black swan” event, which could not have been predicted – and so far the majority view is that “COVID-19 was not a black swan, because something like this pandemic had been anticipated for a long time”.

An attentive student

Indeed, many governments in the Far East had well-developed pandemic response plans; they had learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak, commented Chan Lai Fung, a permanent secretary handling science, technology and research in the Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore. “My predecessors sat down and asked themselves what lessons they could learn to be prepared for the next SARS-like event,” she said: their preparations included pre-approved clinical research plans and data-sharing agreements.

Chan Lai Fung: “A group of civil servants took the trouble to codify the lessons learned after the 2003 SARS episode.”

As a consequence, Singapore enrolled the first COVID-19 patient into its research programme just one day after the country’s first case was identified, and established a dedicated research group just as quickly. “This was possible because a group of civil servants took the trouble to codify the lessons learned after the 2003 SARS episode,” said Chan. According to data from the WHO’s Coronavirus Dashboard and the Singapore Ministry of Health, Singapore’s overall case fatality rate was one of the lowest globally – standing at less than 0.1% (at the end of 2022), compared with the average of about 1.0% worldwide.

Now the country is investing further in pandemic preparedness, vaccinations and therapeutics, with the aim of putting itself in the best possible position when the next black swan comes in to land. “We certainly want to pay it forward,” Chan concluded.

The Global Government Summit is a private event, providing a safe space at which civil service leaders can debate the challenges they face in common. We publish these reports to share some of their thinking with our readers, this year focusing in each report on the main messages of one or more contributors. Note that, to ensure that participants feel able to speak freely at the Summit, we give all those quoted the right to anonymise or edit their comments before publication.

This is the third of five reports, covering the session on public health and resilience. The first focused on how to protect living standards in an era of conflict and inflation; the second on leadership and delivery in the post-pandemic world; the fourth on artificial intelligence; and the fifth on building public trust in government.

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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