After coronavirus, will Britain finally take infectious diseases like flu seriously? If anything good comes of coronavirus, it might be a healthier and more resilient Britain. The UK was initially complacent about the virus, and several individuals first likened Covid-19 to a “bad flu”, perhaps because influenza was the most recent point of reference for a widespread infectious disease in richer countries. But even flu, which killed an average of 17,000 people annually in England between 2014-15 and 2018-19, has a tough time being taken seriously in the UK. That could all change. Britain learned the painful way that infectious disease outbreaks can devastate public health and the economy if not controlled properly. The strong state responses seen in east Asian countries are partly the result of their recent experiences. South Korea, which learned from its 2015 Mers outbreak, was far better prepared for Covid-19. Indeed, South Korea has recorded 299 deaths among a population of 51 million. Taiwan, where 37 people died of Sars in 2002, drew on its previous experience to swiftly contain coronavirus; it has counted seven Covid-19 deaths in a population of 23 million. There needs to be a systematic push to make it easier for people to eat healthily by addressing the price of nutritious food In contrast, Britain has recorded 45,752 deaths to Covid-19 among a population of 66 million. There are several things we can learn from east Asian countries, including the importance of developing systemic solutions, acting swiftly and showing humility in the face of a novel pathogen. This first wave of cases may teach Britain useful lessons for how it deals with future outbreaks, both of coronavirus and of influenza and the common cold. That includes ending the culture of people soldiering on and coming into work when they’re unwell. One survey from 2015 showed that 58% of managers didn’t think having flu was a valid excuse to skip work. This problem extends to schools and childcare facilities; some 63% of parents admitted sending unwell children to school because of workload pressures, according to one 2018 study. To prevent future outbreaks, the government should provide support and incentives so that symptomatic children and adults can stay home without suffering financially. In winter, when we will likely see a second wave of coronavirus cases, the overlap of Covid-19 symptoms such as fever and dry cough with classic flu symptoms including fatigue, sore throats and headaches will strain the testing system as people with flu present for Covid-19 tests. This makes rolling out the flu vaccine to a wider section of the population all the more important. Last year, about 15 million people were vaccinated in England, but this needs to increase to 30-35 million people to prevent infection and ease pressure on the NHS. Rising anti-vaccination sentiment makes uptake of the flu vaccine a problem. Encouraging more people to get the flu vaccine will require a concerted public education campaign to combat the misinformation about vaccines that circulates on social media. Preventing the future spread of infectious diseases will also require better access to handwashing facilities, ensuring sinks and soap are available in visible public spaces, such as parks, shopping centres, train stations, businesses and schools, not just in toilets. Even in places with scarce running water, countries such as Rwanda, Lesotho and Ethiopia have created innovative public hand-washing facilities that also offer free hand sanitiser. Related: Your prescription from Doctor Boris Johnson: go out for a burger – and lose some weight | Joel Golby In the longer term, tackling chronic health problems such as obesity will be crucial to making Britain a healthier country. Currently England has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe, with 63% of adults overweight or obese, and a third of children leaving primary school overweight or obese. The pandemic has exposed the dangers of chronic health problems including obesity; those with higher body mass indexes, as well as high blood pressure and diabetes, are more likely to die from Covid-19. To prepare for a second wave of cases this winter, the government has launched a new obesity strategy, with measures that include banning discount offers on unhealthy products, introducing calorie and nutritional labelling and expanding NHS services to support weight management. While these are welcome steps, they don’t go far enough (indeed, the government’s pre-watershed ban on junk food advertisements, announced as part of its obesity agenda, reportedly won’t be introduced for another two years). Fresh food such as fruits, vegetables, meat, lentils and eggs can be expensive, time-consuming to prepare and go off quickly. In contrast, processed foods, which are generally worse nutritionally, are geared towards affordability and flavour, and can last for months or even years. Nudging people towards healthier options or providing them with more information isn’t enough – there needs to be a concerted, systematic push to make it easier for people to eat healthily by addressing the price of nutritious food and the fact many people don’t have enough time to prepare it. Perhaps the real lesson from Covid-19 is that less of a focus on individual self-interest and more consideration for the collective health of our community will make Britain healthier. Face coverings are a great example of this collective spirit: I wear a mask to protect you, and you wear one to protect me. Infectious disease outbreaks reveal how each of us is only as healthy as our neighbour, as the person we sit next to on the bus, and as the strangers we shop with in a supermarket. If coronavirus teaches Britain to think collectively instead of selfishly, it will be a huge step towards a better, healthier country. • Prof Devi Sridhar is chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh