We should have seen it coming. There had been too many near misses for devastating human pandemics: the Ebola virus, beginning in 1976; the “bird” flu H5N1, first appearing in 1997; SARS in 2003; Zika, beginning in 2007; MERS, starting in 2012. There were others.
We had ample warnings before COVID-19.
And yet it seemed to take us by surprise. We were not ready. We had not learned the lessons of prior pandemics. We had failed to follow the advice of those who work most closely on these issues. Indeed, the Trump administration actually cut off funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s pandemic early warning system, known as “PREDICT,” just months before the first case of COVID-19.
Several factors are making pandemics like the one we’re in more likely in the future. Climate change is spreading the range for vectors that convey disease. As the atmosphere heats up, new homes have appeared for the aëdes mosquitoes that spread Zika, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever, and for anopheles mosquitoes, the vector for malaria.
Modern commercial animal compounds pack together nearly identical species that can easily infect one another. Chickens, which at the turn of the last century were more of special treat, are now a main source of protein in the human diet; chickens today outnumber humans by more than three to one. Hogs and cattle live their brief lives crammed together end to end — eating, defecating, cheek to jowl. Injected with antibiotics to promote quick fattening, the feed lots offer up a rich microbial soup. Trouble is being cooked up there.
Since 1950 the world population has tripled. At 7.8 billion people and counting, we are pushing our numbers all over the globe, just at a time when some regions are becoming too dry and hot for people to safely live there. As humans claim more and more territory, we have moved into animal habitats heretofore left alone. Zoonoses, animal diseases, are increasingly spilling over from wild creatures into humans. And because there are so many more humans now, maintaining a chain of infections is becoming more likely. Microbes mutate. As they pass into humans, if one stray mutation can readily reproduce, more of it will follow.
Once that happens anywhere, it happens everywhere. Traveling halfway around the world, once the stuff of wild flights of imagination, now takes 16 hours flying time. People infected with a novel zoonosis that morning can easily be spreading the same microbe anywhere else in the world that very evening. We are all only as safe as the least protected person.
The wealthy nations and developing societies have different experiences. It is mainly about financial resources. Wealthy nations have better fed populations. Wealthy nations have superior sanitation and potable water infrastructure. Wealthy nations have stronger vaccination programs.
During the current crisis wealthy nations could better afford pandemic relief programs. The wealthier nations led the way in vaccine development, and they have begun to use the vaccines for their own populations first.
So, this pandemic is ending in parts of the wealthier nations, although not yet in much of the less developed world.
But then the next one won’t be long in getting here. We should see it coming.
Meet the athletes with Illinois ties in the Tokyo Olympics
Aisha Praught-Leer, Jamaica: 1,500-meter run
Alyssa Naeher, United States, soccer
Andrea Filler, Italy, soccer
Casey Krueger, United States, soccer
Darryl Sullivan, United States: High jump
David Kendziera, United States: 400-meter hurdles
David Robertson, United States, baseball
DeAnna Price, United States: Hammer
Eddy Alvarez, United States, baseball
Edwin Jackson, United States, baseball
Eliza Stone, United States: Saber
Evita Griskenas, United States, rhythmic gymnastics
Felicia Stancil, United States: BMX racing
Gwen Berry, United States: Hammer
Jewell Loyd, United States, women’s basketball team
Jordan Wilimovsky, United States: 10-kilometer
Jordyn Poulter, United States, volleyball
Josh Zeid, Israel, baseball
Julie Ertz, United States, soccer
Kelsey Card, United States: Discus
Kelsey Robinson, United States, volleyball
Kent Farrington, United States: Show jumping
Kevin McDowell, United States
Laura Zeng, United States, rhythmic gymnastics
Lauren Doyle, United States, rugby
Maggie Shea, United States, sailing
Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, United States, volleyball
Mitch Glasser, Israel, baseball
Nefeli Papadakis, United States, judo
North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics team, United States: Rhythmic gymnastics team competition
Pedrya Seymour, Bahamas: 100-meter hurdles
Rajeev Ram, United States: Men’s doubles
Raven Saunders, United States: Shot put
Ryan Murphy, United States: 100- and 200-meter backstroke
Sandi Morris, United States: Pole vault
Stefanie Dolson, United States, 3x3 women’s basketball team
Thomas Detry, Belgium, golf
Thomas Jaeschke, United States, volleyball
Thomas Pieters, Belgium, golf
Tierna Davidson, United States, soccer
Tim Federowicz, United States, baseball
Tim Nedow, Canada: Shot put
Todd Frazier, United States, baseball
Tomáš Satoranský, Czech Republic, men’s basketball team
Tori Franklin, United States: Triple jump
Tyson Bull, Australia: Horizontal bar
Zach LaVine, United States, men’s basketball team
Zach Ziemek, United States: Decathlon
Olivia Smoliga, United States: 400-meter freestyle relay
Ronn Pineo is a professor of History at Towson University in Maryland, where he teaches a course in “Disease and History.” He is the guest editor for a forthcoming two-part series on pandemics for The Journal of Developing Societies.