We Just Learned Our Lesson, But What Did We Learn?

Right now, if you ask most people, they will tell you what they think we have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, if we haven’t learned as a society, then we haven’t learned at all. What could we have done better from the start? What will we do better next time?

Spoiler Alert: There will be a next time, inside a decade from now or two if we are lucky.

This pandemic didn’t come from no-where. It came from bats, and bats have 400+ coronaviruses.

At the very least, we should have better models, and we should have more data as to the spread of a virus from SARS, MERS, and now Covid-19. We should have better modelling software, and better tests. We now know, and should have known before, the importance of honesty in governments, of testing as many people as possible, of being more wary if asymptomatic spreaders exist.

That we didn’t learn this before is a shame. If we don’t learn it for next time, it will be a tragedy and a farce. We are working on vaccines, but we don’t have a rapid vaccine development program.

At the end of the day, we need to make some hard decisions, but we don’t have a model to make the decision: when do we reopen? How many lives vs. hoBuw many dollars do we spend? We should have a blue-ribbon panel discuss this and come to a reasonable conclusion. We might reasonably balk if it costs $20 million to keep one person from dying from this disease. We would be appalled if we valued a life less that $1 million. Indeed, $7 million is the number the government uses for most causes of death, this one (which spreads, so each death leads to more than one other death as well) should be higher.

But we haven’t learned that lesson, or any other. We haven’t fixed our political system, our world trade, our viral preparations, our pandemic programs, or the World Health Organization’s problems. America, the UN, and most other nations are just as unprepared for the next one as before. How deadly could the next one be? A disease can’t kill all its hosts and still spread. Some diseases have different hosts, like the black plague, and can kill every human it infects because its real host is rats (or mosquitos for malaria). For a disease to spread, it has to keep its host alive long enough to spread, and not incapacitate them. This is why the common cold and the flu still spread (and they mutate too fast for a universal vaccine). Covid-19 checked all those boxes and killed .5% -> 1% of the infected, almost as deadly as it could get. But it turns out that such a disease could kill 5%-10% of the infected and still spread. (Oh, and the next pandemic may not be from nature or an accident).

If we face the next pandemic with the same tools we used, it could kill hundreds of millions. We can’t say for sure we have bested the current disease. We shouldn’t worry too much about the next one. What should concern us today is whether we are learning.

The future could depend on it.