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Frenk: Latin America, Caribbean can learn from other COVID-19 responses

University of Miami President Julio Frenk participated in a webinar that examined how the countries can respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean should look to nations that took proactive measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, not those that trivialized the threat, said Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami and a global health expert, during a webinar examining the pandemic in the Western Hemisphere.

He expressed hope that these countries will not repeat the mistakes of others as the region begins to be impacted by the pandemic.

“The advantage of a pandemic—if there is any—is that the countries that have the first cases start providing lessons for those coming in later. And Latin America is coming in later,” Frenk said. “The evidence that other countries are turning the corner should be an incentive to not give up and not listen to calls for normalcy, because then you are risking a second and a third wave and then the economic consequences are going to be much, much worse.”

Frenk made these comments while highlighting the response of different countries to COVID-19 as part of a live webinar—“COVID-19 in the Americas: Systemic Responses”—Wednesday afternoon hosted by the University’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas.  Moderated by Robert Yates, international health economist of Chatham House, a policy institute in the United Kingdom, the virtual discussion was attended by nearly 500 participants who could send questions to the organizer, Felicia Marie Knaul, director of the institute and a global health economist and expert in Latin American health systems.

Toward the beginning of the conversation, Frenk, who was Mexico’s minister of health for six years and the former dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public health before coming to the University, explained how the novel coronavirus can spread so quickly. First, he pointed out, it is a respiratory virus, which is traditionally hard to contain. Second, COVID-19 can be transmitted by people who have no symptoms or who have mild symptoms, and no one realized this until recently. So, people were walking around transmitting the virus undetected for some time.

“Coupled with a delay in testing, the basic public health response of identification [of those with the virus] and isolation of contacts really was quickly overwhelmed, and we had to move to this generic policy of social distancing,” he said.   

Yates then asked Frenk about the impact of COVID-19 in the Americas. Since cases of COVID-19 are still relatively small in Latin America and the Caribbean, Frenk said these nations can try to replicate the policies of forward-thinking leaders that were able to stem the flow of transmission, such as South Korea and Singapore.  Frenk explained that there are two things countries can do to slow the spread of a pandemic: create contingency plans for a number of scenarios and have constant, clear, concise, and credible communication with residents.

“Success is when you stop a scenario from being a reality, but that’s why you need to imagine what can happen,” he said. “It’s a sign of success when the number of deaths is lower than projected.”

Although Frenk said he is concerned that the pandemic has made some nations in Latin America more isolationist, he hopes that from this experience, all national leaders will acknowledge the importance of working together. He also touted the idea of creating an international stockpile of health care supplies for the next pandemic, pushing nations to improve their public health and allowing the World Health Organization to organize and enforce public health mandates.

“When there’s a global challenge, the only solutions have to be global and they have to be found in cooperation,” he said. “Health security is an integral part of national and international security.”

When Yates asked about the opportunities that may come out of the crisis, Frenk responded that it is critical that nations do not forget about improving public health infrastructure and policies once the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

“When there is a crisis, particularly a health-related emergency, we owe it to the people who are suffering to make sure we don’t go back to status quo prior to the emergency,” he said. “We should use this situation to learn and to make sure we are better prepared.”

Yates agreed, saying that China has some insight for the world about how to respond to a pandemic that they learned after the SARS epidemic in 2002.

“It’s been a wake-up call in Europe for us,” Yates said. “We thought we had these great robust universal health coverage systems, but you’ve just got to look at the statistics and we haven’t done so well.”

Closing out the conversation, Knaul thanked Yates and Frenk for their insight.

“We’ve realized today that viruses are contagious, but so is positivity and so is work for the common good,” Knaul said.

Written by Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Published April 9, 2020