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OPINION

The coronavirus pandemic is a failure of imagination

It’s not just policy failures that got us to this point. It’s an inability to conceive of planetary threats.

Municipal workers clean and disinfect areas around Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Municipal workers clean and disinfect areas around Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey to prevent the spread of coronavirus.Chris McGrath/Getty

Plunged suddenly into the plague era, we naturally wonder how it all happened.

Why do public health systems seem so unprepared for this looming crisis, which scientists say could cost hundreds of thousands of lives? Some answers are to be found in the recent past. They are the easiest to pinpoint, though ultimately unsatisfying.

During the Obama administration, Congress wavered back and forth on funding pandemic preparedness, cutting $870 million from the 2009 stimulus package and later approving a larger sum. Then, in 2018, President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, abolished the office assigned to prepare for pandemics and reassigned its director. The Washington Post reported that this step “means no senior administration official is now focused solely on global health security.” Soon afterward, Senator Sherrod Brown wrote to Trump warning that “this administration’s proposed budget cuts threaten our ability to respond to a public health emergency.”

Asked last week about the abolition of his anti-pandemic office, Trump replied, “I don’t know anything about it.” That is plausible given his management style. Nonetheless the decision reflected a precept that shapes his approach to the world. To Trump and his foreign policy advisers, anything “global” is automatically suspect. They see international cooperation as a dangerous lure that tempts the United States onto a path toward extinction of American power and identity. Deaths from plague, in this calculation, are a price worth paying for the defiant thrill of reaffirming American self-reliance and exceptionalism.

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Events of the last few years, though, are not enough to explain why this pandemic has taken many around the world so fully by surprise. Deeper failures of imagination are also to blame. They are more closely related to human psychology than to geopolitics.

The first of these failures is our evident inability to confront threats that lie beyond our realm of experience. We recognize the danger of dying from cancer or in an auto crash because those threats are part of our lived environment. Until now, though, the threat of a global pandemic seemed diffuse and theoretical, beyond our emotional perception of the possible.

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This is chilling, because it suggests that our brains are wired in ways that make it difficult for us to face potentially apocalyptic challenges. Society’s failure to prepare for the pandemic reflects our failure to confront other threats that we can barely imagine, like climate change and nuclear war. Our brains tell us how to defend ourselves against threats we know, but not against new threats that we have never faced. We take precautions to avoid imminent or individual dangers, but not to fend off the planetary ones that may in the end prove most fatal.

Our new crisis also illustrates the danger of continuing to define enemies the way tribes and nation-states have for centuries — as outsiders who threaten aggression. Protection from that kind of enemy may come in the form of a strong army, to be used in defense, counter-attack, or preventive war. In today’s world, though, civilization’s most potent enemies threaten all states. Pandemics, nuclear war, and climate change are the three most urgent. Yet we cling to traditional models of power politics and confrontation, even on matters of urgent common interest. If the Chinese and American governments had spent the last two decades nourishing their public health systems as generously as they have nourished their armies, our present crisis might never have emerged.

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We know the old enemy, the kind that comes armed with bullets and bombs. Our fear of that enemy has led us to spend immense amounts of money on weaponry and on projecting military power around the world. When our security planners see a new threat, like the current pandemic, they instinctively interpret it in an old way. President Trump gave voice to this impulse last week when he railed against “a foreign virus.” In the modern world, there is no such thing. Today the threat of pandemics, like the threats of nuclear war and climate change, are the inheritance of all peoples and nations.

Separated from routine and adjusting to the new normal of “social distancing,” Americans have time to wonder how we got here. Some will muse on the decadence of an empire that has lavishly overfed its richest citizens while failing to protect the rest. Others may foresee an end-times scenario in which public health emergency leads to economic breakdown and political collapse. A few may take hope from signs of solidarity in the face of hardship.

This pandemic is a wake-up call from the future. It tells us that we need to re-imagine what we mean by the term “security threat.” The scariest threats to human security no longer come from armies or hostile nations. They now come from forces that endanger us all. If this pandemic teaches us only that — if it leads us to begin focusing on emerging threats rather than continuing to fight old wars — it will have brought good along with tragedy.

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Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.