For good or ill, COVID-19 experiences will shape future pandemic responses
“What’s past is prologue.” — William Shakespeare
By Peter Schlosser
Prior to 2020, I never got the annual flu vaccine. I do not recall ever contracting influenza, leading me to subconsciously conclude that I did not need to worry about the illness. But in 2020, my physician recommended I receive a shot to decrease the likelihood of a compound infection of flu and the novel coronavirus. Now, I get my flu vaccine every year.
Our pasts shape our decisions. Experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic changed many of my behaviors. We must utilize our collective experiences from the past three years–successes, setbacks and traumas–to make our communities more resilient to future disruptions. We cannot precisely predict the next virus, but we know it is coming. We must be prepared for surprises.
When COVID-19 brought global societies to a standstill in 2020, it was a shock for our interconnected systems. COVID-19 represented a stress test to see how well our systems–including health, government, commerce and community–could respond to such a massive disruption. The official death toll is roughly 7 million people and climbing–some estimates suggest the real death toll to be between 17 and 29 million based on excess death mortality–indicating the measures we took to respond to the crisis were insufficient to avoid massive loss of life. Almost everyone has lost someone they know to this pandemic.
But it could have been worse. We moved relatively quickly to implement countermeasures in a highly uncertain environment. We took steps to lessen infection and “flatten the curve” through shutdowns, physical distancing and masking. We mobilized resources at a pace rivaled only by wartime efforts. And within one year, we had an effective vaccine that helped slow the speed of transmission, easing the pressure on healthcare and economic systems. Present-day endeavors, such as the 100 Days Mission, which seeks to develop effective diagnostics and preventative vaccines within the first 100 days of a pandemic, can build upon these successes.
Perhaps the biggest revelation of the past three years, although it should not have been a surprise, is the impact of individual human decisions on pandemic outcomes. We ignore the human element at humanity’s peril.
COVID-19 also revealed challenges for policy, global supply chains and human decision making. There was no consensus on how governments should respond to the pandemic. Many experimented with short shutdowns, which helped to reduce the burden on hospitals while in effect, but once lifted, the virus took hold. China, on the other hand, conducted an experiment on how long a government can control citizens’ behaviors. Only fully transparent data from China will reveal whether its long-term lockdown prevented deaths when compared to other nations. Its “Zero-COVID” policy certainly squeezed global commerce, showing a present-day need to diversify supply chains to better prepare for emergencies.
Perhaps the biggest revelation of the past three years, although it should not have been a surprise, is the impact of individual human decisions on pandemic outcomes. We ignore the human element at humanity’s peril. People made choices that risked their own lives and the lives of others, including those they love, but this is not simply because they did not care. The stress caused by the pandemic continues to ripple through societies. Violence against women during COVID-19 has been labeled the “shadow pandemic.” Drug- and alcohol-induced deaths in the United States increased by 30 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in 2020 compared to 2019. And people with children were placed in exhausting positions of supporting schoolwork while coping with new work realities, be it remote work, unemployment or “essential worker” status with no childcare available. Great uncertainty and undesirable options make misinformation highly influential. Bad actors filled those voids, and will continue to in the future. Responses to the next deadly virus must account for mental, as well as physical, health.
In our interconnected world, viruses know no bounds, like many other threats to global futures. We must make our approach to solutions limitless as well. Our experiences shape our values and our decisions. Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and disruptions from climate change are predicted to become more frequent and bring greater devastation. We must carry forward the lessons from the past three years to better anticipate such events, construct redundancies and design systems with enhanced resilience and response mechanisms. Our institutions and governments must make decisions now to invest in that level of preparedness as insurance against predictable and unforeseen disruptions.
Peter Schlosser is the vice president and vice provost of Global Futures and director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University. This article first appeared in the Global Futures: Now newsletter in March 2023. Sign up for the newsletter at globalfutures.asu.edu/gfl-newsletters.