What health experts didn’t see and won’t the next time around about pandemics, unless. . .


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.


What is by no means clear at present is what happened to the 2005 version of the next-pandemic. That policy discourse has been 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.

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 still 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? We need a 2020 version of “the next pandemic,” not one from 2005. True, but that point is pushed further by the obvious question when it comes to pandemic preparedness.

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?

If predicting the future is the mess we are in now, then the next pandemic is the one underway just described as you are reading this..


So what are we to do? I don’t have an answer, but I have one suggestion.

It’s clear that the professionals who should have been informed about the dangers of the 2020 pandemic were not among the people addressed by most, if not virtually all public health experts. Here I mean the professionals who operate in real time our critical infrastructures, like water, electricity, telecommunications and transportation. No one told those men and women in the control rooms and out in the field that COVID-19 would wreak such havoc as it did in systems mandated to be so reliable.

From our interviews in Oregon and Washington State, it’s obvious no one predicted the actual, mega-impacts and interruptions that COVID has had on the real-time operations of essential infrastructures. You probably already know essential workers were sent home to work offsite. Less known perhaps is the fact that those on-site had to get vaccinated, and some very experienced personnel left. Far less appreciated, COVID put a brake on major infrastructure investment, improvement and management activities. Said one logistic manager of his state’s response, “All [Covid-19] planning happened on the fly, we were building the plane as it moved, we’d never seen anything like this.”

In effect, public health experts were talking to the wrong decisionmakers. The experts seemed to operate under two misleading beliefs: their public role is to convince key politicians and officials about what to do, even if privately they “know” the real problems are politicians and politics.

Both beliefs remain fall short in a pandemic world. We wouldn’t have a foundational economy, we wouldn’t have markets, if it weren’t for electricity, water, telecoms and transportation being reliable. Yet to my knowledge the professionals responsible for real-time operations in the infrastructures were never specifically warned, were never specifically talked to, and certainly never had a chance to listen to our pandemic experts and ask their questions.

Consulting these critical infrastructure people the next time around won’t answer the questions of inequality, poverty, war and pestilence but would go some way to increase pandemic preparedness and response.

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