Although COVID-19 has disrupted the semesters of most students, it’s providing at least one class at Oklahoma State University with an unexpected opportunity for hands-on learning with real world impact.
The graduate students studying Global Crisis Management with Marten Brienen, Ph.D., a lecturer in OSU’s School of Global Studies who specializes in International Disaster Management and other security issues facing fragile states, are gathering information they and their professor hope can help people around the world make sound decisions when dealing with the next pandemic.
The course is usually designed around talking about natural disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis with a few weeks spent on pandemics, but as the novel coronavirus began its worldwide spread, Brienen decided to scrap his syllabus and pivot to examining the global response to COVID-19.
He says as the virus began its spread, he told colleagues that he didn’t expect to be finishing the spring semester in the classroom.
They thought he was crazy, Brienen said.
Now his students are working remotely to gather information on the measures being taken by various jurisdictions around the world at the national, state and local levels.
The students, who speak a variety of languages including Arabic, French and Spanish, have divided into teams focused on specific regions to document the actions taken by different levels of government.
They’re gathering information from news reports that will be used to build a database of the various government responses, economic impacts and health outcomes for comparative analysis.
It’s ultimately about finding a balance between the diseases’s human toll and the economic cost of shutdowns that slow its spread.
The study is something many leaders probably wish they had now as they wrestle with how and when to ease social and business restrictions while minimizing the loss of life.
Brienen says it’s a situation that doesn’t offer a lot of good choices.
Different countries have taking wildly different approaches based on their willingness to suffer through an epidemic, he said.
He says the narrative that Asian countries like South Korea shut down with high levels of cooperation because of a sense of collective identity isn’t really true. It’s more because their governments didn’t handle previous pandemics like MERS and SARS well.
“SARS killed a lot of people,” Brienen said. “It has everything to do with the amount of damage they faced.”
Taiwan and South Korea have chosen not to go through the epidemic, he explained, but the problem is: by choosing that, they can’t re-open their countries without people getting sick.
A place like Taiwan that only had a few hundred cases now can’t go back to normal for a long time.
Brienen said “flattening the curve” reduces the number of cases and prevents medical systems from getting overwhelmed but drags it out.
“The economic cost of a really flat curve is astronomical,” he said.
The economic damage endangers lives in its own way and social isolation takes a toll, leading to increased rates of suicide and depression, Brienen said.
Some countries like Sweden and the Netherlands took minimal steps to prevent the infection from spreading. Their bars were still open and people were still skiing but both had been hit quite hard by the virus when Brienen spoke with the News Press.
He believes there is logic behind both approaches.
Brienen says he hopes his analysis will reveal a balance that reduces the number of people who are critically ill at the same time while minimizing economic destruction.
“They can both be right,” he said. “In the end we’ll have to see which of these works best ...This genie is not going back in the bottle.”