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The Emergence of a Global Pandemic

Feature written by Hui-Chi Yeh  :   

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we had snow, cold weather and that spring was never going to come. Now that the warm weather has arrived and we are coming out of lockdown, things are looking a bit more hopeful.

Times have been tough, and life is challenging in many different ways during this pandemic. While we are all remembering our friends and loved ones who have been taken away from us, the strength and resilience of the NHS and its medical staff on the frontline are also being recognised as the hope behind our fight to save lives. Even though many of us have had to cope with life on our own, we still have time to think about the efforts of others. Like everyone, the pandemic has changed the dynamics of my life. My family lives in Asia, while I am living in the UK. With the pandemic continuing to spread across the globe and hitting air travel, the impact of the pandemic on my life has been quite pronounced.

This has provided me with a moment to think about this whole pandemic experience, the way governments have taken different approaches to tackling it, and how people can help with the situation. Thinking back, I was working in China when I first heard of the outbreak in Wuhan in late January. I was having a meeting with the Centre for Disease Control in Beijing and was made aware of the Coronavirus on the same day they announced they were to close the city of Wuhan! I didn’t feel panicked or even nervous, and actually wanted to stay around to learn more about the situation, bearing in mind I was far away from Wuhan city. People started to stop going out. Shops and restaurants started to close because they couldn’t get enough customers. I have never seen Beijing’s streets as empty as at that moment. The streets became deserted. Something I never thought possible in China. Wearing a mask became the norm in China, and quickly in many places in Asia. People felt that it was their civic duty to wear a mask in order to prevent the spread of the virus or that it would stop them from getting the virus.

In late February I flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. At that time, Malaysia had a few cases of Covid-19, but the society was feeling pretty relaxed about it. I felt very safe there, as the Ministry of Health reported the daily cases every day. The government seemed to have things under control and let the public know that the cases they had discovered had been imported and not the result of local transmission. They also explained that they had a pandemic preparedness plan ready, including identifying hospitals to handle Covid-19 patients, distributing rapid RT-PCR tests for patients and contacts with hospitals and laboratories, along with developing management protocols if the situation escalated. Life was very normal and business meetings were all usual. I didn’t feel Covid-19 affected people’s life that much at the time, but the society had a general fear that the spread from neighbouring countries would escalate, especially from Singapore as migrant workers travel between the two countries daily. The number of cases in Malaysia soared, increasing to 200 cases in less than a week following a religious event in early March, and they instituted a Movement Control Order on 15th April.

As news about the virus became more widespread internationally, my colleagues back in the office in Leeds began messaging me, concerned about what they were hearing. I remained calm and told them all was okay. Then airlines began stopping flights to China, and there was a fear that I would not be able to get out in time, before all flights were stopped. I left China as scheduled to fly back to England a week after the Wuhan lockdown. By the time I left, you couldn’t really see anyone on the street, and most national airlines stopped their flights. After several conversations with my colleagues back in the office, we felt that situations could change at any moment and felt strongly that travel needed to be limited. After my trip to Malaysia, we stopped international travel and face-to-face meetings in our office, before the UK locked down.

With the opportunity of staying in the office for the last three months, I have had a chance to see how TPP as a healthcare IT company has been working hard to help with the situation. Here in the UK, the message around Covid-19 was clearly about flattening the curve, slowing down the virus’ spread, alleviating its effects on the health care system, and saving lives. The way we did so was through social distancing, which included restricting movement and travel, cancelling classes and shutting down schools and trips to restaurants and shops. This was a big disruption to the lives of many people. While some people could continue working from home, many people could not, and are unsure whether they will have a job to return to. With the population under apprehension, I remember Frank, our CEO, spoke to the entire company and reminded us how we could and should support the NHS and front line staff with our healthcare IT expertise, and promised everyone a secure future. His speech continues to inspire me with his passion for making the world a better place. I have now been working in healthcare for more than six years, after moving from teaching and academia in a different discipline. I never regretted it and really enjoy what I am doing now. Even during this trying time, I have never been this proud of what we can do in healthcare.

I feel fortunate to be working with my colleagues and to play our part by contributing to the fight against Covid-19. The last three months were non-stop. The whole team was doing absolutely everything to launch the new app, Airmid, in response to the pandemic. Our CEO was particularly driving the research on how the use of buses and other public transport has led to the spread of Covid-19, and shared the information with councils. We are also working with research organisations and universities to deliver the research that helps. Based on the data used by thousands of GPs using SystmOne – TPP’s Electronic Health Record (EHR) system – we have been working with different research organisations to help with delivering a more informed response to the outbreak. For example, we have partnered with the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) Research and Surveillance Centre (RSC), based at the University of Oxford, on their initiative to run clinical trials to address the Covid-19 emergency. This partnership enables clinical trials of selected medicines that might reduce the duration and severity of Covid-19, including hospital admission and mortality, and will allow GPs using TPP SystmOne to recruit patients into the trials, and then access information entered via participants using the Airmid app. With the support of the NIHR Clinical Research Network and Health and Care Research Wales, we are also working with the University of Nottingham on the PRIMIS FLU-CAT study to indicate which patients may be at risk of developing Covid-19 complications. The Economist commented on how TPP conducted research on the sensitive data as: “It preserves confidentially while liberating useful information.”

New infectious diseases are emerging and re-emerging more quickly than ever before due to globalisation and the destruction of wildlife habitat. It is sad to see the disturbing reality of this pandemic, and how fragile our economies and social safety nets really are. It is clear that we will need to respond to the persistent under-investment in the world’s public health systems. However, to look on the bright side, public health now has everyone’s attention. Even in the middle of this crisis, we have an opportunity to repair and replace systems that have been shown unfit for purpose and improve the way we will respond to future challenges to our health and well-being. I believe everyone can benefit from the research we do and the service we provide to press the world’s most critical challenge and make better decisions. And when we do, we will save lives.