COVID-19 symposium highlights the complexity of the pandemic and the importance of collaboration
It was shaping up to be an interesting and multi-faceted morning when registered participants logged on for an online symposium in early May. Experts from a variety of fields, ranging from social sciences, economics and statistics to climate, microbiology, virology and epidemiology came together to discuss the challenges of the pandemic and the ways in which we can move forward. We ask Joacim Rocklöv and Henrik Sjödin, the moderators of the event, how it all went.
Text: Kristina Lindblom
"It was a very successful and enjoyable event thanks to interesting presentations and inspiring discussions between the speakers and the audience – and a well-functioning technical platform with good support," says Henrik.
"At the event, new research on the pandemic was presented and then we discussed how future crises should be handled and what we have learned from this one," says Joacim.
Joacim, can you tell me more about the contents of the symposium?
"There were five exciting lectures on the current state of research. Rachel Lowe from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine talked about dispersal patterns and the relationship to weather. She described the state of knowledge and how the spread of respiratory diseases is often influenced by the environment.
Tom Britton from Stockholm University discussed different approaches to vaccination, and it emerged that different decisions need to be taken depending on the infection situation. In a country with high infectious rate, like Sweden, it is not so important how the vaccinations are distributed – apart from giving them to the very oldest people first. Instead, the most important to think about, is to keep the spread of infection down with other measures."
Different decisions need to be made on the basis of the infection situation.
"Furthermore, Shouro Dasgupta from the CMCC Foundation and Elizabeth Robinson from the University of Reading talked about how the pandemic has affected food security. What we see is that different countries have fared differently, i.e. the effects of the pandemic are very different – and that monetary aid seems more successful than aid through food distribution.
Hasitha Tissera at the Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka spoke about the impact of the pandemic on Sri Lanka and, in particular, how the spread of dengue has been reduced during this period. It is estimated that the spread of dengue has been reduced by about 90% due to reduced mobility during the pandemic. Few could have imagined such a large reduction, and it increases our understanding of the importance of mobility for the spread of infectious diseases, including vector-borne diseases.
Last up was Torben Königh at th Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI) who talked about where we stand on the climate goals of the Paris Agreement, how the pandemic has affected emissions and ways in which we can successfully achieve the 2050 targets. Torben described a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions globally during the pandemic and that there is still a chance of being able to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement."
An interesting panel discussion concluded the symposium
"After the above presentations, the climate crisis was discussed and compared with crises such as the pandemic in a panel discussion. The panel agreed that in both situations – both crises – it is beneficial to act early and that a complete knowledge base will not be available at that point.
Another observation was that the climate crisis represents a more difficult challenge as austerity measures are less visible at the local level as greenhouse gas emissions are global in nature."
Henrik, you have a background in ecology and evolution and are an interdisciplinary researcher analysing public health problems – from your perspective, what is the most important thing you will take away from the symposium?
"There are often no simple, low-dimensional answers to complex questions as there are typically many interacting factors. That's why it's also good when several people from different fields of knowledge help each other, so that we can better understand how to approach solutions to large-scale problems. I think this was highlighted during the symposium. That the will is there and that the pandemic has perhaps also prepared us all for this – and that this will also be important in the context of other crises such as climate change or the loss of biodiversity."
During the discussion, it became clear that the climate crisis and the coronavirus crisis share common features in terms of vulnerability and solutions. Where do you stand on that, Joacim?
"There are many lessons we have learned from the pandemic that we must carry with us. For example, the importance of taking action at an early stage and the difficulty of dealing with a global climate crisis. We don't see our impact on the climate as clearly at the local level and the effects come with such a huge time lag – we don't know for sure what the outcome will be."
Can we afford to wait?
"No, not with the high stakes that are at stake, our planet! It's an insight that I think many people should carry with them," says Joacim.
The pandemic has also forced us into new ways of meeting. How well do you think the online symposium worked out?
"It worked well. Of course, it's not the same as meeting in person, but at the same time, we get the opportunity to reach a wider audience by meeting virtually," says Joacim.
"Thanks to UTRI, this was organised with the help of an external organiser, which saved an enormous amount of time and provided good quality. You only need to work on the content, the structure and the discussions.
Usually, as a researcher, you are a bit afraid of taking on an event like this because you think it will take "too much of your time". But with a professional organiser and an administrator, the experience is easy and seamless. I can certainly recommend Umeå's researchers to take advantage of the service that UTRI provides for events. UTRI arranges the contract with an external organiser for the event."
Joacim, you were one of the founders of UTRI. What is UTRI and what are the future plans?
"UTRI, Umeå Transformation Research Initiative, is a grassroots initiative that involves a large number of teachers and researchers. The aim of UTRI is to support interdisciplinary research collaboration in the transformation towards sustainable development.
We need to discuss and collaborate more across disciplines to identify successful research. The pandemic has highlighted the need for interdisciplinarity and UTRI wants to promote these initiatives."
UTRI is a network for everyone at Umeå University and will become what we make of it.
"UTRI should be a vehicle of exchange for Umeå University researchers and is for everyone! Anyone at Umeå University can apply for and receive help with organising events or pilots, etc. On our website, all events are posted in our calendar and you can find information on how to apply for funding through UTRI."
If someone wants to get involved in UTRI, how do they do that?
"UTRI sends out a newsletter every two weeks with event tips, announcements and other information of interest to the network. You can subscribe to these newsletters by sending an email to email@example.com and find out about all the events organised by UTRI, as well as other events. You can also let UTRI know about events you want to be publicised in the network and on the website."