: We failed to foresee the pandemic — these other big risks are staring us in the face


The coronavirus pandemic has turned life upside down in the U.S. and across the world. 

A year after it started, life is in the early stages of returning to normal. Millions of Americans are receiving vaccinations each day, helping the economy to reopen.

But we are not out of the woods yet, especially as coronavirus variants spread and some state governors are abandoning basic precautions including mask wearing and social distancing. 

The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress — with support from some state and local Republicans but not a single congressional Republican — have rightly focused attention and resources on the pandemic and its related economic fallout. 

However, it’s important to consider the ways in which we failed to prepare for, and anticipate, the pandemic. 

This is not merely an academic exercise. In understanding our failures, we can consider what other potentially dislocating risks exist so we can be ready for the next crisis — which may not be all that hard to identify.

Although the pandemic has been a shock, “Black Swan” author Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that it was entirely predictable. Science journalist Laurie Garrett and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates warned about the threat of pandemics for years — decades, even.

Taleb sounded the alarm about this particular outbreak in January 2020. The mathematician suggests that the coronavirus pandemic highlights the role government should play in preparing for public health crises: “If [the U.S. government] can spend trillions stockpiling nuclear weapons, it ought to spend tens of billions stockpiling ventilators and testing kits.”

Taleb argues that the pandemic was no unpredictable event, but rather an entirely foreseeable “white swan” disaster. His observation should make us think about other white swans coming our way in plain sight.

Some have the potential to upend life in the way the pandemic has, others may not threaten the same level of dislocation but still demand our attention:

  • Climate change: Like the pandemic, this is no black swan: Experts have warned about this threat for decades. This mounting crisis could eventually make the pandemic look like a relatively small-scale event. Scientists describe climate change as an “emergency” that “threaten[s] the fate of humanity,” warning of “irreversible climate tipping points” that could “potentially make large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”
  • Gun killings: Compared to the pandemic’s toll, gun deaths may seem like a much smaller problem. More than 500,000 Americans have died from the pandemic in the past year compared to about 41,500 who died in 2020 from gun violence, including homicides, accidental shootings and suicides. But we shouldn’t let the staggering number of coronavirus deaths numb us. More than 100 Americans die from gun violence and hundreds more are shot and wounded daily.  The most recent mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado rightly seized our attention, but the reality is that the 18 people killed in those horrific massacres are matched five times over by shooting deaths every day.
  • Domestic terrorism: As shocking as the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol was, it was not a complete surprise. Ray Dalio, head of hedge fund firm Bridgewater Associates, warned last year that the U.S. was “at a tipping point” that could potentially lead to civil war. In December 2020, political consultant Ariel Kovler presciently wrote that it was “highly likely” Trump supporters would “try to storm the Capitol” on Jan. 6. Last week, the director of national intelligence warned of white supremacists conducting possible “mass casualty events.” The FBI’s head of counterterrorism said domestic terrorists “have been emboldened in the aftermath of the breach of the U.S. Capitol,” and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described domestic extremism as “the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to the [United States] today.”

While those examples don’t cover the universe of predictable dangers we face, they ought to be a call to action.

Biden and members of Congress should consult with experts who can help the government prepare for and, one hopes, prevent these crises. The president has identified responding to some of these threats as a priority (as indicated, for instance, in the administration’s infrastructure plan that includes action on climate change), but he should not have to act alone. 

The U.S. is a constitutional democracy, not a monarchy or dictatorship. So far, congressional Republicans have indicated they plan to make themselves the party of “no.” That would be an abdication of duty. The harrowing experience of the past year should make us all think about what we can do to prepare for the other potentially dislocating events that may be waiting for us. 

If Republicans are prepared only to stand in the way, then Democrats will have to think, within the constitutional system, of what can be done to make urgently needed action possible. That could include filibuster reform as well as statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. 

Former President Trump was rightly blamed for the failure to manage the pandemic last year. If Biden and Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, can’t find a way to prepare for other foreseeable threats, they can also expect to be held accountable.

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. He has written two books on presidential power. Follow him at @ChrisEdelson on Twitter.

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