Never in living memory has the world faced a more global challenge than SARS-Cov2. In a connected world, the fight will not be won until the disease can be controlled in every country.
To fight an invisible virus that we still don’t fully understand, diversity of thought and perspective will be crucial and we will need to draw in expertise from all corners of the world. Already we have seen an impressive level of collaboration across the global health community: data and insights into key features of the disease are being shared, and vaccines and treatments are being developed and trialed by institutions in different countries.
We must continue to challenge the traditional framework of global health and development. We have so much to learn from the front lines in lower-income countries that have made significant steps in the fight against infectious diseases in recent years.
The reality is that diseases are tackled, controlled, eliminated and eradicated at the local level. This is demonstrated by the progress made in ridding the world of polio and malaria, mitigating the impact of deadly and debilitating Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), and fighting Ebola. The experiences, insights and tools used in these programs are among the most crucial to fight SARS-Cov2.
In some ways, many countries in the developing world may be better placed to fight the virus than developed countries. Despite weak health systems, drastic shortages of medical gear, large populations of impoverished people and crowded megacities that make social distancing near impossible, many are used to partnering with international organizations to fight disease and have tried and tested immunization infrastructure in place which can be adapted for new challenges. But the challenges are huge and social distancing and economic stimuli will be almost impossible to implement in many of these countries.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), created in the wake of the West Africa Ebola outbreak, is a great example of what can be achieved when we recognize the need to nurture and institutionalize local expertise and know-how. The center is playing a powerful coordination role across the continent, helping to identify region-specific responses to SARS-Cov2 and spotlighting the virus’s impact on a less-reported part of the world.
Emergency Operation Centers (EOC), like those used to fight polio, are another example of valuable region-specific mechanisms for response and coordination, testing, contact tracing and mobilizing community action in response to public health threats. They allow people from different offices, sectors, and groups to work directly and collaboratively, share information in real time, and create joint plans of action.
As an advanced economy that sits between Africa and Asia and was not so very long ago a developing country itself, the UAE has a unique perspective and role to play. It is from this basis that the Abu Dhabi-based Global Institute for Disease Elimination (GLIDE) was created. Announced in 2017 and formally launched in November 2019, GLIDE looks to accelerate progress and advance global thinking towards disease elimination.
This initiative was 30 years in the making, founded through cooperation between the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding father of the UAE, and former US President Jimmy Carter, to help eradicate Guinea-worm disease (Dracunculiasis). More recently, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed broadened the UAE’s focus on disease eradication to include river blindness, polio and malaria. GLIDE’s work builds on the UAE’s leadership role in the fight against polio in Pakistan, and many of these tools are now being repurposed in the fight against SARS-Cov2.
GLIDE is an institution that helps globalize global health, and one that accelerates progress towards that last mile of disease elimination by developing local, regional and endemic country capabilities and capacity. My hope is that, by working closely with other global health players, GLIDE proves to be a valuable institution that effectively works with and learns from the frontline.
The world has edged closer to the eradication of polio and Guinea-worm disease and to the national elimination of several other diseases. What we have learned is that the last mile of fighting a disease is harder, takes longer and costs more to achieve than we thought. We are safer and more secure when we have diversity of perspective and thought. This means drawing in more voices from all corners of the world, to bring health to everyone, everywhere. We will all be better for it.