The Pain of Not Preparing For a Pandemic

We should not have been surprised by COVID-19. We should have been ready.

Two years ago, the stock market was on a one-way trajectory: Up.

In 2018, we watched how bioengineering advances and a technology called CRISPR held the promise of personalized medicine and cures. People lived longer, healthier lives.

That year also was the 100-year anniversary of the globally devastating Spanish Flu pandemic. That silent viral scourge killed more people than World War I. The Spanish Flu took between 50 million and 100 million lives worldwide.

World War II’s occupations, trench warfare, shooting and bombing, and the starvation that followed, killed 20 million. The war’s casualties split nearly evenly between military and civilian deaths; Americans and Europeans.

Since then, lethal pandemics have lurked as a danger to our globalizing societies. The real threat and risk were always understood by public-health policy analysts and scenario-planning government agencies. Publicly, we had our own recent reminders: SARS, MERS, H1N1, Ebola. Citizens and leaders judged this threat to be off in the far distance. That illusion was a more comfortable way to go about our daily lives. It was easier for us to focus on our routines, invest in future markets and defer, or completely ignore, historic precedent. In the best case, we thought we could confront threatening outbreaks when the time arrived, before they became epidemics. In the worst case, we told ourselves we could head off those epidemics before they developed into pandemics.

That seemingly distant dystopian future has arrived, and we all feel as if we were somehow caught off-guard, unprepared.

Here’s the thing: We should not be surprised. We should have been ready.

This is not an “I told you so” moment. For years, people such as Dr. Peter Piot have been telling us this was going to happen.

The warnings have not been subtle, either. Piot wrote the 2012 book “No Time to Lose” declaring that the world was not planning for the next big, hard-to-contain pandemic. His experience told him that next time—this time?—perhaps millions of people worldwide could die.

Piot is not a fearmonger. He is the microbiologist credited with discovering Ebola. He’s been a senior official at the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the Gates Foundation. He currently is the director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. I had a long talk with him in 2018 and walked away shell-shocked, fearful that a public health pandemic was looming.

Piot said a pandemic like COVID-19 was inevitable. For years now he’s been telling us what to do as a society, and how to do it.

First, society needs to recognize that an outbreak’s containment begins locally. Local action failed in this case, China’s repressive political system prevented the honest dissemination of information on the initial outbreak. By the time the real news got out and the rest of China and the world became aware of the coronavirus’ contagious spread, it was too late. Early containment was the key to stopping this thing in its tracks, buying time to develop a vaccine and gaining public confidence that the disease could be controlled.

Instead, we have witnessed failure all around.

Piot says that containing a potential pandemic requires political leadership and will. We have seen an absence of both. What was a preventable public health problem has now mutated into a global economic crisis.

Piot was not the only one to warn us. He used his amplified voice and platform, but so did others, such as Laurie Garrett in her award-winning 1994 book, “The Coming Plague.” Movies, too, presented us an extreme and graphic version of a pandemic’s consequences, as in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 “Contagion.”

Despite the warnings, the fears and the expectation that this was coming, the COVID-19 virus is all around us now. Global preparation was weak, and the initial American response was anemic.

Seemingly normal, safe, everyday life is upended by a simple, invisible, potentially invincible virus. We shelter in place. We worry about society’s most vulnerable: the elderly, those with weak immune systems, the ones who slip through the cracks of our healthcare systems or struggle to keep a roof over their heads.

Our executive leadership ignored the warning signs and the experts. Our federal government had the tools and the resources to do something, but failed to target them and failed to plan. As we continue to suffer the consequences and wake up daily to a new challenge—more deaths—and early finger-pointing, how can we be certain that the next big global threat will be met?

Heed the warning signs.

Nuclear-weapon agreements are lapsing. Sophisticated cyber weapons can take down a nation’s strategic infrastructure. Biological hazards abound. There are plenty of experts and authors sounding the alarm. If this pandemic achieves anything positive, it should be to prepare us for future threats to our survival and way of life.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.