Did the prophecy that future pandemics are inevitable actually bring one into being?
At the heart of the current debate over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic is the question of how to manage the risk of future infectious disease outbreaks. For over three decades, experts in emerging viruses have argued that zoonotic spillover is an ongoing and inevitable process, and that human incursions into the natural environment have made the world increasingly susceptible to catastrophic pandemics. From this perspective, ever since the appearance and spread of HIV/AIDS, “the next pandemic” has been right around the corner.
However, the recent rise of an alternative theory of the pandemic’s origins poses a disturbing question: Is COVID-19 the realization of these experts’ prophecy? Or did the prophecy in fact bring the pandemic into being?
We Are Not Prepared
With a return to normalcy in sight (at least in some parts of the world), we are entering what might be called the “post-hoc assessment” phase of the pandemic. This phase typically involves a process of collective diagnosis, in which official commissions draw lessons from the event that point to the need to anticipate similar future crises. Thus, a World Health Organization review of the response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic concluded that “the world is ill-prepared for a severe pandemic or for any similarly global, sustained and threatening public health emergency.” Five years later, after the catastrophic Ebola epidemic in West Africa, another W.H.O. review committee warned that “the world cannot afford another period of inaction until the next health crisis.” Such assessments, in turn, seek to galvanize resources and structure organizational reform in order to ward off future catastrophes.