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14 August 2020
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Covid-19: a failure to learn from history

By Dr Mohammed Wajid Akhter

GP in Upminster, Essex, Vice-President of the British Islamic Medical Association and International Director of FIMA Lifesavers

They say the difference between a leader and a visionary is that the former is able to hit targets that few others can, whereas the latter can hit targets that few others can see. 

While it would be too much to expect all leaders to be visionaries, learning from history should be expected of any leader worth their salt. Yet, we are arguably in the middle of one of the most momentous failures of leadership ever seen in the medical profession without a corresponding degree of self-accountability. 

This may sound harsh to many; after all, we are at the very front line of treating people with the disease. We risked our lives during the peak of the first wave and we are working at a frenetic pace to find a vaccine. How could we hold any responsibility for a pandemic caused by a totally unprecedented disease?

The answer lies in that word: unprecedented. 

The reality is that COVID-19 is entirely with precedent. Anyone who studies medical history will tell you that we have been expecting this pandemic for some time and many of the challenges we face now – from face masks to fake news, from xenophobia to economic turmoil – are exactly the same as those faced just over a century ago with the Spanish Influenza.

Our failure to learn from past pandemics is not just an oversight. It is the inevitable result of deprioritising public health, of failing to get to grips with the social media age and not teaching the history of medicine in medical schools. These may be generalisations – but when the Krebs cycle gets more airtime in a typical syllabus than the accumulated lessons from the history of medicine or social media sites that occupy the majority of our waking moments – perhaps there is a need to find a better balance.

My 10-year-old son asked me if doctors were still going to go and see patients when the pandemic was in full swing. I told him when there is a fire everyone gets to run away – except the firefighter. Well, this is our fire. This pandemic has taken precious lives and has cost us a great deal. As leaders, we owe it to all of those who have died to have an honest conversation about how we could have and should have done better. After all, those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

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