Why We Need to Close the Pandemic Information Gap
By Paula Klein
It’s not surprising that an economist would view the COVID-19 pandemic through an economics lens. But Professor Joshua Gans of the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management, takes his vision a step further: He’s seeking to correct COVID-19 response failures by bridging gaps in information dissemination. In the process, he also hopes to curtail the devastation of another epidemic.
In two recently published books and at a September MIT IDE seminar, Gans mapped the phases an economy goes through during a pandemic and explained what information is needed at each stage to enable recovery. He argues that policies should insulate businesses from failure and workers from job loss, and he describes approaches that would help achieve this — primarily, widespread rapid testing and contact tracing.
Identify and Isolate
While the COVID virus is a medical and public health threat, the spread of “pandemics are basically an information problem,” Gans told MIT IDE attendees. Pandemics are manageable if you can identify and isolate those with the infection quickly and accurately, he said. Yet “few decision-makers understand the information aspects of a pandemic, and that has hampered response.” Frameworks that focus on information sharing and data-based decision-making are needed to fix current problems and to prepare for future outbreaks, Gans said.
“If we actively manage the information problem — if we know who is infected and with whom they had contact — we can suppress the virus, or buy time for vaccine development.”
A lack of economic preparation and a poor understanding of how pandemics impact the economy beleaguered North America at the onset of COVID-19.
To test out whether widespread information sharing can offset those deficits, earlier this year Gans helped create a consortium of some of Canada’s largest companies representing 350,000 employees nationwide. Participating organizations offer rapid testing aimed at reopening the economy and getting people to work. The program now includes more than 1,000 organizations. More than 700,000 screenings have been conducted, representing one of the biggest data sets for COVID information in the country, he said.
Gans, an economics Professor at the Rotman School of Management, is also a visiting scholar at the MIT IDE. In a recent article, he explained that pandemic-induced economic crises are different from past recessions and new approaches are needed.
Gans writes that with “rapid, frequent screening, we can control the pandemic and restore normality. We can lower the number of cases, break chains of transmission, and make it safe for people to interact again.” This effort will require the right information, and matching that information to the right decisions, he adds. “We have the ingredients to do all these things. We just need to put them together in a scalable and sustainable system.”
In addition to screening, “the primary economic tool at our disposal for fighting the economic consequences of pandemics is the collection and use of information about infectious people.
Our preparation for dealing with inevitable future pandemic threats must involve building our information infrastructure and the decision-making skills to make use of it.”
For the Canadian program, participants — including Canada’s biggest airline and grocery chain — have developed a 400-page operating manual on how to run rapid antigen tests in various work settings. The organizations began piloting the tests in their workplaces this month, and expect to expand the program to 1,200 small and medium-sized businesses.
Companies in the consortium are also testing their employees twice a week, increasing the chances of finding positive cases. They plan to share their test results with health authorities, providing an informal study of the virus’ spread among asymptomatic people.
Contact tracing is more controversial, but Gans argues that “we need local institutions that know the risks of the virus and can step in and quickly sort out who is infectious and who is not. That will require good surveillance data… particularly about the interconnections of individuals in their networks.”
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, he said, “it is that pandemics are also economic problems” that should be handled with better, more accessible information. A lack of information about COVID’s spread among personal networks is a “primary reason why we were unprepared for COVID-19,” according to Gans, and why “we have been playing catch-up throughout the entire crisis.”
Watch video of the MIT seminar.