Mar 14, 2020 - Health

The pandemic highlights the man-made disasters to come

Illustration of glowing globe with virus cells in it
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has fully arrived, how bad it gets will largely be a function of how our society responds at every level.

Why it matters: From pandemics to climate change to earthquakes, massive catastrophes lie in our future. But in a world that has the technological capability that ours does, we have the power to mitigate those disasters through our preparation and resilience — or to make them worse through our failures.

Today we can either directly see through technology a disaster coming or reasonably know our level of risk based on the experience of the past or the ability to model what's to come.

What this means is that in the truest sense, no disaster is really — or only — natural. The toll a catastrophe takes, especially in human lives, now has as much or more to do with our preparation, response and level of wealth as it has to do with the strength of the event itself.

  • One example: The 2010 earthquake that hit Haiti had a 7.0 magnitude and killed at least 220,000 people, while another temblor that struck a much better prepared Chile a month later was far stronger, yet killed fewer than 600 people.

The COVID-19 pandemic was entirely foreseeable, as I reported recently.

  • Yet by refusing to take that threat seriously, and even dismantling some of the response measures that were already in place, the U.S. effectively expanded its "bull's-eye of risk" for an infectious disease disaster.

Be smart: What happens next with COVID-19 will have far more to do with the steps we take in the days and weeks ahead than anything to do with the virus itself.

  • The New York Times reported on March 13 that worst-case projections by the CDC had as many as 214 million Americans being infected and as many as 1.7 million dying.
  • But those projections assume that nothing would be done to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The wide-scale canceling of social gatherings and distancing measures being put in place will almost surely bend that curve.
  • The apparent success of China and South Korea in curbing the outbreak, and places like Hong Kong and Singapore in preventing the disease from gaining a strong foothold in the first place, demonstrates the difference that action can make.

What's true of the pandemic now will also be true of threats from megatrends that will only intensify in the future, like climate change. What we do to directly mitigate global warming and adapt to its effects will determine our level of risk.

  • Actions that make us more vulnerable — like building up development on coastlines that face rising seas or allowing vaccination rates for preventable diseases to fall — expand the bull's-eye of risk.
  • Mismanagement of a disaster while it occurs or immediately after it can make a catastrophe far worse, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The bottom line: There's no such thing as a natural disaster anymore. Our ability to prepare and respond to what nature throws at us is our strength — or, should we fail to do both, our vulnerability.

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