This week, the Global Health Security Index — a consortium of advocates and experts in collaboration with Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security — issued a 268-page report on preparedness for health emergencies. That obviously includes future pandemics, which are inevitable.
The outlook was predictably dark. Though I don’t think quite enough.
The assessment included 195 countries. As summarized by Lena Sun at The Washington Post “every country, including the United States, remains dangerously unprepared to respond to future epidemic and pandemic threats.”
Which isn’t surprising. We’ve had two years of this COVID-19 pandemic and we’re still losing as many people every day as have died in the most deadly hurricanes of the past century. A historically catastrophic hurricane every day. Sun writes:
That part about “public confidence in government” is key.
It’s where the U.S. scored the lowest in the world.
The concept breaks down in lots of ways, and hopefully not many people have unwavering confidence in every governmental act, no matter what. But nor should they have unmitigated distrust, or a sense of certainty that everything coming from the mouth of any public-health official is inherently false.
That’s cult behavior: assigning merit to an idea based entirely on whether the person who said it falls into the good group or bad group, as defined by the leader. This is the mindset toward scientific evidence that many Americans are being encouraged to have, and so adopting.
There are important debates to be had about how to proceed. What sorts of measures are feasible, sustainable, practical? How much loss are we, as a society, prepared to reckon with? How can we improve?
There’s enormous opportunity for legitimate debate. There was a time it could’ve happened with at least a patina of earnestness from politicians. But today it’s largely a debate only among Democrats. Republican pundits and leaders have chosen either to disengage or to incite followers to protest any intervention at all.
The immediate effects are playing out already. We see them in the disparities in COVID-19 deaths between red and blue states, as laid out in a recent NPR investigation, among other places. Republican-dominated areas are seeing people suffer and die at far higher rates than others, and the gap grows larger by the day.
This is not because of any innate ideological difference. It’s simple political manipulation: removing debates from the plane of reason by telling people that essentially anything done or suggested by Biden’s administration is, de facto, wrong.
This us versus them approach to politics is an extremely effective way to rally support around dangerous, baseless ideas. It invites people to abandon reason and make up their mind based on affiliation alone. History has made clear what this mindset can lead people to do.
However effective that may be as a political tactic, as an approach to preventing infectious diseases, it's doom. It turns people against even simple, obvious things. No matter what. And the more urgently that solutions are presented, the more ardently they are spurned, mocked, rejected.
And this approach provides no alternative solution. It turns people against masks, vaccines, tests, and on and on. It denies the very existence of the issue.
Skepticism is good. My default response is disbelief. Uncritical trust in government officials is dangerous. But categorical distrust is more dangerous. It means that the very act of attempting to orchestrate a response to an emergency is doomed. It means a total unwillingness to engage with basic facts.
If the continues, the stifling effects we’re seeing now could mean far greater damage in the longer term. If a new pandemic arose tomorrow, we would be even less prepared than we were in February of 2020.
Yes, we are now technically far better at things like testing, sequencing viral genomes, making vaccines and masks, sharing research data, and on and on. The past two years have condensed a decade of scientific progress as so many brilliant people have turned their attention and resources to pandemic preparedness and mitigation.
But none of that will matter if people are categorically opposed to all of it. If politicians keep using basic science and crisis management as a wedge, then we stand no chance. It won’t matter if we develop the best technology in the world if half the population effectively identifies as against germ theory.