Let’s start with some history.
Between 429 and 426 BC, the Plague of Athens killed between 75,000 and 100,000 people in Greece. The cause(s) of the plague are unknown, but the general consensus is that people in those ancient times were dealing with something like typhoid fever, hemorrhagic fever, or typhus.
Roughly 2,500 years later, we’re dealing with COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that is quite literally shutting the world down.
There’s a burden carried by the modern world – let’s say the last century – that wasn’t present in the previous 2,400 years or so. That burden is the culpability of bad planning.
From 1915-1926, the world faced the sleeping sickness (Encephalitis lethargica) pandemic, which killed around 1.5 million people. Concurrently, from 1918-1920, the Spanish flu pandemic killed 100,000,000 or so individuals. The Asian flu (Influenza A virus subtype H2N2) took the lives of another 2 million, this time from 1957-1958. A decade later, the Hong Kong flu (Influenza A virus subtype H3N2) killed a million more.
From 1920 to today, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has taken the lives of over 32,000,000 people. The 2009 flu pandemic (Influenza A virus subtype H1N1) took out somewhere between 150,000 and 575,000 people. Estimates vary widely. Between 2013 and 2016, an Ebola virus killed over 11,000 worldwide, a majority in West Africa.
This is a grim highlight reel of various epidemics and pandemics that humanity has faced in the past century or so. Over the past half-century (at least), people in the know have said that eventually we’ll face a virus that will knock us on our collective asses.
Is COVID-19 that virus? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. So far it’s at least put us into unknown territory pretty easily.
What I do know is this. We’ve had plenty of time to make plans. Not plans to deal with a virus that couldn’t be predicted, but plans that could be used in a general sense to deal with a situation like this. There’s a sense that the CDC and WHO have stuff like this, but where are the solid protocols at the federal, state, and local level for shutting down schools, closing public establishments, triggering financial supports for those being put out of work? They’re not there, or if they are, then people are doing a terrible job rolling them out.
We are terrible at planning for the future. That’s always been true, I think. We treat most things like the heat-death of the universe. “Yeah, it’ll be bad when it happens, but it won’t happen today. So let’s not worry about it right now.”
That goes for our leaders at various positions of authority, but it also applies to the rest of us. When we saw the magazine articles, the links, the documentaries, we could have chosen to advocate for planning. But we figured someone else would do it. Someone would get around to it in the future.
Unfortunately for everybody, the future showed up a few weeks ago, and no one was ready for it.