My introduction to the policy side of pandemics was in 2005, when I read two articles, “Preparing for the next pandemic” by Michael T. Osterholm and “The next pandemic?” by Laurie Garrett, both in Foreign Affairs (July/August 2005). I think any reader today would find these articles prescient indeed. While some numbers haven’t turned out as supposed, the articles are spot-on in my view when it comes a COVID-19’s major first-order impacts on mortality rates, medical shortages, security, food systems, finance, trade, and economics.
The problem is, to telegraph ahead, other newer understandings of the current pandemic may be obscuring the very idea and necessity of pandemic preparedness.
First the earlier prescience. Here is Laurie Garrett in 2005: “some countries might impose useless but highly disruptive quarantines or close borders and airports, perhaps for months. Such closures would disrupt trade, travel, and productivity. No doubt the world’s stock markets would teeter and perhaps fall precipitously. Aside from economics, the disease would likely directly affect global security, reducing troop strength and capacity for all armed forces, UN peace keeping operations, and police worldwide.” Michael Osterholm ends his 2005 article with: “Someday, after the next pandemic has come and gone, a commission much like the 9/11 Commission will be charged with determining how well government, business, and public health leaders prepared the world for the catastrophe when they had clear warning. What will be the verdict?”
Many have an idea already about the verdict. What is by no means clear, though, is what’s happening to the 2005 version of the next-pandemic. That policy discourse is being scored over by all manner of other issues at best only touched upon by the likes of Osterholm, Garrett and others 15 years ago. Nor is this a criticism of the earlier warnings, implying that their prescience wasn’t prescient at all.
To see what this means, turn to the tide-race of articles on what to do about COVID-19. Below are titles of only a few among many reports to be found in the COVID-19 folder of the international aggregator, Syllabus.com, over six days between April 23 – 30, 2020:
Tech Giants Are Using This Crisis to Colonize the Welfare System
The COVID-19 Pandemic Crisis: The Loss and Trauma Event of Our Time
Migrant workers face further social isolation and mental health challenges during coronavirus pandemic
‘Calamitous’: domestic violence set to soar by 20% during global lockdown
The Fog of COVID-19 War Propaganda
The Case for Drafting Doctors
Covid-19 Threatens to Starve Africa
Covid-19: the controversial role of big tech in digital surveillance
For a more equal world: Coronavirus pandemic shows why ensuring gender justice is an urgent task
COVID-19 in the Middle East: Is this pandemic a health crisis or a war?
Urban Warfare: Housing Justice Under a Global Pandemic
New Age of Destructive Austerity After the Coronavirus
The Coronavirus and the End of Economics
Covid-19 is ‘an affront to democracy’
Health vs. Privacy: How Other Countries Use Surveillance To Fight the Pandemic
World Bank warns of collapse in money sent home by migrant workers
Coronavirus: will call centre workers lose their ‘voice’ to AI?
How Can Low-Income Countries Cope With Coronavirus Debt?
Is Our War with the Environment Leading to Pandemics?
The World Order Is Broken. The Coronavirus Proves It.
The West has found a new enemy: China replaces Islam
Will COVID-19 Make Us Less Democratic and More like China?
Pandemic Science Out of Control
Tech giants are profiting — and getting more powerful — even as the global economy tanks
The Legal and Medical Necessity of Abortion Care Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
Will a child-care shortage prevent America’s reopening?
Covid-19 or the pandemic of mistreated biodiversity
Coronavirus, war, and the new inequality
Firms in EU tax havens cannot be denied Covid bailouts
This Crisis Demands an End to Mass Incarceration
I suspect you’d have to search long and hard in earlier warnings of the next pandemic for the above specificities–which by the way are but the tip of the iceberg of COVID reportage at the time of writing.
Of course, you’d be right to conclude that these titles reflect the widespread and deep impacts of the corona crisis for society, economy, culture and more across the world. You’d also be a fool not to see pre-existing policy agendas glomming onto the crisis as of way of furthering their own important priorities—be they inequality, climate change, labor, migrants, and the rest—that have risen to more attention and visibility since 2005.
So what, you press. We need a 2020 version of “the next pandemic,” not one from 2005. True, but let’s push your point a bit further. Before agreeing with you, I’d first want know what is downplayed in this “updating” from what we took to be settled knowledge about pandemics from roughly 2005 on until recently.
Here’s an example of what I mean. We are fortunate that both Garrett and Osterholm are around to write about COVID-19. Both are talking about follow-on COVID-19 infections, Osterholm by way of warning about “the next waves of infection that are bound to hit” and Garrett understandably turning her attention to the urgent need for vaccine, adding however “If an effective Covid-19 vaccine is developed, its targets will include almost eight billion human beings, with nearly three-quarters of a billion living in conditions of extreme poverty”.
In other word, what if the next pandemic is the one we now have?
That is, what if “preparedness for the next pandemic” reduces to better real-time responses in the one pandemic that is indefinitely underway at present?
Not only is it understandable that Osterholm, Garrett and others are caught up in real-time operational messes around COVID-19 response, forgoing for the duration longer-term preparedness as called for in the 2005 Foreign Affairs. It’s also the case that the future is very much the crisis we are now in; today all but ensures the lack of sufficient preparedness for future different pandemics. Again and importantly, we are quite unprepared for the massive immunization program necessary for the COVID-19 vaccine that has yet to be prepared.
More, how could we be better prepared for the future if now, visibly more so than in 2005, we insist pandemics are caused by unresolved, interrelated issues over, inter alios, climate change, the international order, neoliberal economics, poverty, inequality, national welfare systems, global and local injustice, privacy rights, gender and reproductive rights, biodiversity loss and species extinction, geopolitics, cross-border migration, along with other claimants listed above and more?
Assume Osterholm’s equivalent to a 9/11 commission (or a global version of it) isn’t put on hold and comes sooner than later. We then face the prospect of identifying those to blame for the current crisis without at the same time drawing all the lessons we need to better prepare for pandemics different than COVID-19.
You still may say such isn’t premature. To me it sounds like the blame-game being the only mechanism for thinking ahead about anything close to a 2005 version of preparedness. In the extreme, scapegoating will have to do all the heavy lifting. If so, then that is a very real loss.