Learning the lessons of COVID-19

Keith Hayward

The Editorial in the previous issue focused on how the message of the importance of handwashing in helping check COVID-19 was resonating around the world. The continued global escalation of the pandemic since means the significance of this message is undiminished. It sits alongside other public health messages that have come to prominence, notably on maintaining social distancing and wearing of face coverings.

For the sector itself, the speed and scale of the spread of COVID-19 has been such that there are now three overlapping conversations going on, each pointing to a need to learn lessons. Countries are at different points in their trajectories through the pandemic, but these conversations are relevant to all.

This edition includes several features with input from the IWA COVID-19 Task Force. The themes of this issue’s features and the topics being focused on by the Task Force reflect these three conversations.

COVID-19 arrived as a new disease on the global landscape. The first conversation has been around filling gaps in our understanding, to decide how to act in the present. This issue’s feature on the science around COVID-19 connects with this conversation. So too does the work of the Task Force on the significance and fate of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in relation to wastewater treatment.

Then there is the expanding conversation around how we live with COVID-19. The lead time for vaccines, the emerging evidence around the length or limits of post-infection immunity, and the growing list of second-wave outbreaks, for example, all feed this. For utilities, it includes the ongoing economic impact of the pandemic on customers. It includes the continued attention to handwashing. It also includes the potential for wastewater monitoring to help guide public health decisions on COVID-19 – another focus of the Task Force and articles in this issue.

The third conversation looks more firmly beyond COVID-19. This includes early practical aspects such as how to restart buildings after extended periods of being locked-down. It also includes the longer-term picture, such as identifying lessons to incorporate in health frameworks.

It is in the spirit of this need to identify lessons that the Task Force is gathering cases of the experiences of utilities (see the Task Force page in IWA Connect).

The water sector should not be too narrow in its evaluation of COVID-19. The pandemic provides an opportunity to look across the public health landscape for broader lessons. This includes lessons on communication. The message itself has to be right. Just as important is public trust in whoever is delivering the message – something that needs to be built and sustained over time.

Keith Hayward, Editor