In previous blog posts I have highlighted how the pandemic and the importance of science to combat future health crises seem to have vanished from public debate in Sweden, even though we are approaching the first national election since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is vital that we do not forget the many lessons the pandemic taught us, but rather make sure we use them to build better preparedness before the next health crisis hits.
This morning I was interviewed on the Swedish breakfast TV show Nyhetsmorgon. Along with two medical doctors from the hospital Södersjukhuset here in Stockholm we discussed how the pandemic seems to have disappeared from the public debate in Sweden, even though we are in the run-up to a national election and thus have an excellent opportunity to put preparedness and societal resilience on the political agenda. This should be done out of respect for the many that were directly affected by the pandemic, their relatives, and the society at large. Much stands to be improved, and we have sufficient evidence to know how. In this context the report of the Swedish Coronakommision is close at hand.
The pandemic brought with it immense suffering. In Sweden alone it has taken the life of nearly 20 000 people thus far. It is human nature to wish to forget and move on after collectively and individually having gone through such an ordeal. Yet it will be harmful in the long run if we choose to ignore the many shortcomings that the pandemic brought to light.
I fully understand that there are other things that weigh on people´s minds: increasing criminality and soaring price on electricity, food and fuel, just to name a few. Such issues have understandably made their way to the forefront of the political agenda. But we must be able to have more than one thought in our heads at the same time. There must be room for issues that are not urgent today but that might become very urgent tomorrow. What we do know is that the future will bring a new health crisis – be it a new pandemic, antimicrobial resistance, climate change, or armed conflicts. We don´t know when a new crisis will hit, but we know that preparedness is key.
At the frontline
We learnt a lot and achieved a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic. Health care and research were at the frontline, while academia and industry joined forces and developed vaccines and new treatments at a rate never seen before. What we should keep in mind is that the ultrarapid progress we saw during the pandemic was rooted in decennia of basic research in universities and state-funded institutions. I am proud to say that KI ranks high among these universities.
TV4 is not alone among the media outlets that commendably addresses the conspicuous absence of pandemic-related issues in the election debates. A recent article in the British daily The Guardian zoomed in on the same topic. It featured KI researcher Emma Frans and chairman of the KI university board Göran Stiernstedt, who referred to the disappointment and concern that so many of us feel when we watch how seminal issues are pushed down the political agenda. Today, after our discussion in the morning show, the journals Dagens Medicin and Läkartidningen have also published articles on the topic – both with quotes from one of my previous blog posts.
Rose to the challenge
Research and education provide the fabric of society, keeping it together even when a crisis hits. During the pandemic we saw how the health care sector rose to the challenge, in a seamless collaboration with our research and education communities. Yet we also learned that there were structural constraints – i.e., political and economic factors that limited our efforts and thwarted attempts to safeguard the elderly and vulnerable groups. We must always cling to the belief that we can do better. But this belief cannot be sustained unless we have a willingness to bring the difficult issues to the table. Having forfeited this opportunity in the election debate, may I suggest that the new government – regardless of its composition – put preparedness and research on centre stage.