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March 31, 2020, 8:37 a.m. EDT

Once the coronavirus crisis is over, our societies will have to be rebuilt around resilience to pandemics

Everything we do, all of our investments, and the way we organize ourselves will be influenced by consideration of whether we are protected from COVID-19 and its successors or made more vulnerable to them

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By Simon Johnson of Project Syndicate


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We’ll beat this thing, but then we’ll have to figure out how to stop the next virus before it overwhelms us.

WASHINGTON ( Project Syndicate ) — We live now in the post-virus world. For the United States, passage into this world came suddenly, less than a month ago. The world as we knew it before the arrival of COVID-19 has gone. It is never coming back.

Once you reconcile yourself with this reality, many things become clearer, including how to resist the current onslaught, how to fortify ourselves against the darker days that still await, and how to reopen the economy responsibly. With the right understanding, we can rebuild appropriately, with greater resilience and more fairness.

Breaking news : Follow the latest on the coronavirus.

At the start of 2020, we believed random mass death did not stalk the Earth. For most of human history, infectious disease was a constant threat, and the struggle against it was an essential element of human civilization. By the mid-19th Century, science began to gain the upper hand against afflictions such as cholera.

In the early 1900s, Europeans learned how to limit the damage from malaria and yellow fever, at least for themselves. Penicillin and streptomycin were deployed in force during the 1940s. Childhood vaccinations for smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox soon followed.

Over two centuries, roughly from the invention of inoculation against smallpox to its eradication, science rose to dominate the environment. To be sure, new diseases emerged — beginning in the 1980s, for example, when HIV/AIDS devastated some communities and countries.

But the prevailing view was that such health emergencies — while needing resources and demanding attention — were not central to the organization of our economies, our societies, and our lives.

Random death is back

The global impact of COVID-19 makes that view obsolete. Random mass death is back, and this reality will now dominate everything, for two reasons.

First, and more generally, this is not the first coronavirus, and it is one of several lethal variants to emerge since the turn of the millennium, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). There is no reason to think it will be the last.

Second, this particular coronavirus derives its lethal power from its specific profile: it is highly infectious and can be transmitted even by asymptomatic people. And, while many people who contract COVID-19 will suffer only a mild form, it appears most likely to kill older people and those with underlying health conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.

But why would any future coronavirus necessarily have a similar profile? Other coronaviruses — from those that cause the common cold to the deadly ones that cause SARS and MERS — do not.

It is entirely plausible, given the weak state of our scientific understanding, that a future coronavirus could profile in a different way — for example, proving more lethal to young people than to the old. Or perhaps it will target our children.

Once you have had that thought, it is not possible to believe that we can return to the pre-virus world. Everything we do, all of our investments, and the way we organize ourselves will be influenced by consideration of whether we are protected from COVID-19 and its successors or made more vulnerable to them.

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