Chronicle of a Pandemic Foretold

Learning From the COVID-19 Failure—Before the Next Outbreak Arrives

“Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic. We must act now with decisiveness and purpose. 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?”

That is from the concluding paragraph of an essay entitled “Preparing for the Next Pandemic” that one of us, Michael Osterholm, published in these pages in 2005. The next pandemic has now come, and even though COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus that emerged in late 2019, is far from gone, it is not too soon to reach a verdict on the world’s collective preparation. That verdict is a damning one.

There are two levels of preparation, long range and short range, and government, business, and public health leaders largely failed on both. Failure on the first level is akin to having been warned by meteorologists that a Category 5 hurricane would one day make a direct hit on New Orleans and doing nothing to strengthen levies, construct water-diversion systems, or develop a comprehensive emergency plan. Failure on the second is akin to knowing that a massive low-pressure system is moving across the Atlantic toward the Gulf of Mexico and not promptly issuing evacuation orders or adequately stocking emergency shelters. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, preparation on both levels was inadequate, and the region suffered massive losses of life and property as a result. The analogous failure both over recent decades to prepare for an eventual pandemic and over recent months to prepare for the spread of this particular pandemic has had an even steeper toll, on a national and global scale.

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