Janet Pau
Class of 1994


Economist and Director at The Economist Group


Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, I had been writing about the adverse effects of climate change on public health challenges. As a densely populated city and an international travel and trade hub, Hong Kong has always been subject to a heightened risk of infectious disease spread. In southern China, extreme heat waves and increased flooding brought about by global warming foster environments susceptible to infectious diseases that are vector-borne, by hosts such as mosquitoes and ticks. At the same time, continued urban sprawl means humans are encroaching upon animal habitats. The mixing of animals and humans create the risk of zoonotic diseases, meaning viruses, bacteria, and parasites originating in animals that jump to humans.

Covid-19 is the pandemic that health researchers have been warning about for years. World Health Organization scientists in 2018 had warned about Disease X - their name for an as-yet-unknown disease, possibly zoonotic in nature, which could become the next epidemic. Covid-19 turned out to be one of these diseases-in-waiting. And Covid-19 may not be the last pandemic we face in our lifetimes. In the coming decades, climate change will likely accelerate the migration and dislocation of both humans and animals, exacerbating disease formation and spread. Better preparedness and detection will be essential combating pandemics. Beyond public-sector investments, which tend to favour low-risk and cost-effective solutions, notably vaccines, the private sector may have the opportunity to lead the way in investing in disruptive technological innovations. These could include artificial intelligence tools to disrupt the conventional process of disease-trend forecasting. For example, machine learning can be used to search for hidden patterns in environmental factors and traits of animal species that predict pathogen carriers with greater accuracy. Sustainable investment schemes can be designed to finance pandemic preparedness. Urban planners also need to better balance development goals with the longer-term preservation of wildlife habitats.

As Covid-19 has so forcefully shown, pandemics are an "uncertain certainty" that will lead to serious health, economic and social costs. They must be seen not in isolation but together with other global challenges, notably climate change. Hong Kong should now take its hard-earned success in largely halting the spread of Covid-19 to prove itself as a role model in the area of pandemic preparedness and public health.

Previous articles on public health and climate change authored by Janet Pau for further reading:
- Build up climate change resilience in the Bay Area
- Hong Kong can make itself a role model in preparing for pandemics
- Steps needed to cool down heat-stressed cities in Asia