August 4, 2020 / Ilise L. Feitshans

Snapshot from the Trenches: Saving the World from COVID-19 Requires a Model Pandemic Preparedness Act

No one has been untouched by COVID-19. Even people who are healthy may have suffered job loss, grieved a loved one, or perhaps had their education suspended. By May 3, 2020, surging COVID-19 cases infected 3 million people and killed 247,838, within a few weeks after patient one, wreaking economic devastation over trillions of dollars. One month later, on June 3, reported 6.29 million cases and 380,000 deaths. By July 1, there were over 10 million cases and half a million deaths. And in mid-July, new cases jumped by one million in less than five days.

Worldwide, COVID-19 response included a plethora of emergency federal, state, regional, and local municipal orders in major cities and small towns. During May-June 2020, over a billion people lived under emergency government orders to stay in shelter or stay home in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Emergency orders were enforced by police in some places; some industries were closed, although frontline workers rendering essential services were allowed to leave home. A systemic shift to remote work changed the landscape of telecommuting, perhaps permanently turning remote work at home into the mainstay of the economy, while schools from day cares to universities were closed by executive order with one stroke of the legislative pen.

What does this mean for a small company? In a Swiss pharma enterprise there were overnight changes concerning several market factors: increased demand for existing products used in ventilators and renal dialysis combined with enhanced oversight by government regarding use, shipping, and containment measures to protect product and prevent contamination in facilities.

Increased demand sounds nice for the company ledger, but it also meant heightened public scrutiny. Ramping up production required rapidly hiring additional staff, streamlining onboarding but instituting unprecedented protocols for antibody testing and taking the temperature of employees each time they entered company premises. Possible virus transmission in food was controlled by prohibiting staff to bring any food onsite: everyone ate meals that were supplied by the company after it had applied replicable protocols for virus testing in food. Staff who live in a neighboring country faced special problems: people who cross national borders daily for work might not be allowed to enter, in cases where the definition of essential work under permits and national executive orders were inconsistent. When border crossings were allowed, special paperwork was required, signed by the employer. Those foreign workers might have children at home, living under different emergency orders.

    Proposed Solution: A Model Pandemic Preparedness Act

    Civil society stops whenever the quality of human life is threatened by a pandemic. COVID-19 is no exception. Lessons learned from pandemics of the past underscore that workers’ health and the survival of civil society are inextricably linked. Although too many people were unprepared to address a plague in the 21st century, societal problems occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic fit traditional playbooks. Key components of legislation created during pandemics past include:

    1. Underreporting and lack of early recognition
    2. Blaming foreigners while debating response by the public health infrastructure
    3. Isolation of sick individuals
    4. Closing of courts, legislatures, and government functions
    5. Closing markets and stopping commerce

    Internet communication combined with the societal ability to rapidly close businesses, schools, and public gatherings of all types—from the Olympics to weddings—was necessary, but catastrophically disruptive, because civil society was unprepared. Lockdown works, but it is expensive and requires forethought to protect commerce and civil liberties.

    The legislative process enables people to express their opinions and offers them the opportunity to be heard. People enjoy “having their say.” Often, respected professionals express valuable views but feel that no one has listened. This disconnect between observation and input into policy negatively impacts the ability of governments to incorporate professional insights into new laws. Ultimately this disconnect creates mistrust, which undermines effective communication from respected scientists and officials intended to protect public health. Public trust is especially worn thin in pandemics, when dramatic orders are issued suddenly to isolate infected populations and daily life is upended by new laws.

    Drafting model legislation helps solve these problems. Collecting our experiences in order to propose legislation could prevent and solve problems when pandemic conditions surface again. Therefore, there is an urgent unmet need for draft pandemic legislation, to be constructed around our collective lessons learned, enabling civil society to learn from pandemic precedents without ignoring them. This novel approach to outreach in the context of merging lab to fab science and sound experiential information from COVID-19 can offer stakeholders purposeful expression when creating a model pandemic preparedness act. Surveying health professionals and collecting their experiences into a draft law costs very little money but will yield great dividends.

    Ilise L. Feitshans

    Ilise L. Feitshans, JD, ScM, DIR, is executive director of The Work Health & Survival Project,


    A universal Guidelines required.

    WHO/ILO should take the initiative in preparing a draft Guidelines and seek comments from various countries. Based on the feedback, the Guidelines is to be finalized and the document distributed for adoption . Each country can frame its own laws based on the Guidelines. K. N. Krishna Prasad, EHS Consultant & Trainer; Chartered Engineer, India.

    By K. N. Krishna Prasad on August 20, 2020 2:35am

    I think this paper gives a new approach while focusing on different problems such as the foreign employer’s conditions who had to have cross borders during COVID-19. It also addresses the link between workers’ health and survival of civil society which is unnoticed by many of us. In Turkey, we had similar problems with seasonal workers/agricultural workers who could not cross across cities due to travel restrictions in the first days of the pandemic. According to the past and present experiences we had, I think that model pandemic legislation will be a good solution for many problems that occur during pandemics, especially for people who are forced to quit their jobs.

    By Çağrı on August 7, 2020 8:52am
    Snapshot from the trenches

    The numbers are absolutely staggering. Leaders from around the world to elected officials and corporate trend setters have a moral mandate to develop protocol for any future signs of ill pathogens which have potentially crippling effects on mankind and the environment. We have experiences, datasets, technologies, and talents as a society to prepare mankind for almost any biological harm. While policy, guidance and even law brings about a sense of preparedness, we must keep in mind that no matter the documented word informed leadership has no substitute where democracy is rooted. IMO the author has put forth a substantiated claim for change that requires the legal standing to be effect which is clearly in the best interests of life.

    By D. Spencer Riley on August 6, 2020 9:08pm
    Head of Law Dept Letterkenny Institute of Technology

    Great article- raises some interesting questions around the need for international consistency of approach. Surely real pandemic preparadness requires this level of consistency regardless of national boundaries? A 'margin of appreciation' type principle might apply to enable discretion on contextual basis. There is also an important education awareness piece to this.

    By siobhan cullen on August 6, 2020 8:43pm

    Add a Comment