In an article in Wired magazine ("We Can Protect the Economy From Pandemics. Why Didn't We?"), Evan Ratliff recalls Gunther Kraut describing the famous clock tower in the central square in Munich. One of the tower's glockenspiels depicts the "dance of the barrel makers", an event in 1517 when barrel makers took to the streets to celebrate the abatement of the plague, after it killed approximately 50% of the people of Munich. Now that is as close to an extinction level event as I hope we ever see. Ratliff goes on, "A one-in-500-year disease event wasn't some abstract concept, [Kraut] would tell people. It was something that had reshaped our societies in the past and would do so again. And whatever level of truth one ascribed to the glockenspiel's legend, 1517 was just about 500 years ago."
Ratliff interviewed Nathan Wolfe, a virologist who studied infectious diseases in Africa for six years. Wolfe says,
As scary a forecast as this is, Wolfe is an optimist. In the same edition of Wired magazine, Gideon Lewis-Kraus describes some of that "forceful way" we need to respond "to make humanity safer":It is not impossible that over the course of the next 50 years, humanity has an event which is substantially worse than this event, and people at that point look back and say, 'As terrible as Covid-19 was, if we had not had it, the consequences would have been so much more dramatic.'...In the grand scheme of history, it may be seen as a very costly inoculum against future events. I believe that the world has no choice but to respond in such a forceful way that will make humanity safer.
That's the good news? That all we need to start is functional government, universal health care, and a much stronger social safety net? To start with? Good luck with that. I don't deny that those things are needed. It's that, after four years of President Trump, after four months of a pandemic that killed 133,000 Americans and counting, we still have half the country that not only doesn't see our lack of supplies of personal protective equipment in hospitals as a self-inflicted disaster, but still won't agree to wear face masks in public. These are the people who are going to deliver functional government, universal health care, and a much stronger social safety net when COVID-19 is behind us? These are the people who worship at the altar of Ronald Reagan: "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem."The good news is that social trust—the kind that undergirds both an institutional response and a technological one—can be cultivated, as long as responsible authorities keep their promises and refuse to default on their most basic obligations. Even small acts of ministerial competence can go a long way in a crisis. Taiwan banned the export of N95 and surgical masks on January 24 and nationalized mask distribution two weeks later, which established an atmosphere of mettle and faith.
Americans, of course, need far more than access to masks, though that would be a good start. A functional government, universal health care, and a much stronger social safety net—not to mention consistent, meaningful communication from on high—would help us relinquish the enduring fantasy that we will be saved by a Silicon Valley moon shot or that our low levels of social trust are congenital.
Call me a pessimist. Such people are never going to agree to make the kind of collective preparation needed for the next pandemic. After all, Ebola, HIV, SARS, H5N1 "bird flu," or MERS weren't enough for us to take permanent steps to deal with the next pandemic. It was all thrown out the window with a change in leadership. And, truth be told, even the people who today rightly see how wrong we got it this time, will probably forget as soon as COVID-19 is past us. I don't see the national will to act lasting much beyond the successful deployment of a COVID-19 vaccine. But who knows? Maybe we'll be lucky and never again elect leaders who fail to do the right thing in the face of public apathy. Maybe there'll be a glockenspiel in 2520 that'll commemorate our survival in 2020 and beyond. On the other hand, maybe the next pandemic will really be the big one and we won't be ready...again.