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Is Paranoia the Key to Pandemic Preparedness?

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Is Paranoia the Key to Pandemic Preparedness?

Hypervigilance Beats Preparation for Unpredictable Crises

Foreign Affairs,

5 min read
5 take-aways
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What's inside?

Facing a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s better to be paranoid than institutionally unprepared.

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Early in 2020, the global leaders who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos were unaware that the 2021 and 2022 in-person meetings wouldn’t happen. Just as they agreed that climate change was humanity’s most imminent threat, a lethal, contagious virus was already spreading. Focusing on one disaster risks ignoring others, like wars, earthquakes or early-stage pandemics, historian Niall Ferguson warns in Foreign Affairs. His illuminating article approaches disaster preparedness in an expansive, unconventional way.


Predicting the next disaster is difficult.

In January 2020, global political and financial leaders thought the most imminent threat facing humanity was climate change, even as a novel coronavirus was evolving into a pandemic. Of course, climate change remains a global crisis, but focusing on only one crisis blinds you to others, such as the birth of a deadly pandemic.

No philosophy nor knowledge of history can help people or governments anticipate a future disaster’s nature, aspects or scale. That may be why governments tend to prepare for the disaster that most recently took place or is taking place now – such as climate change – while remaining virtually blind to other threats until a completely new, unexpected disaster emerges.

Governments’ advance preparedness for disaster is limited.

Western nations like the United States were, in principle, prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic – yet they failed to keep it under control. The United...

About the Author

Niall Ferguson, the author of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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