Shrewd Thinking: Staying prepared against humanity’s greatest threats

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub. 


As our lives become ever more interconnected, the number and variety of potential threats are rising. 

With the advent of globalisation, the world has notably been subject to five major threats: terrorism, economic crises, pandemics, natural disasters and nuclear proliferation.

For all their uncertainties, the current state of world politics allows us to make several educated guesses about future crises.

Instead of worrying about the inevitable, investors, political leaders and citizens should find ways in which they can prepare themselves – and perhaps even try to thrive – in the face of these potential disasters.

Reinventing Dynamism: An in-depth look at the future of work in Europe beyond the pandemic by Sven Smith and Lea Thiel, McKinsey & Company

In this piece, I would like to take you on a short journey analysing and exploring possible future catastrophes, starting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and considering others that may one day emerge.

Although they can cause large numbers of deaths and significant economic damage, bringing societies to their knees, pandemics are one of the most challenging disasters to predict.

Having allegedly originated in Wuhan, China, the COVID-19 has spread globally since its discovery in late 2019.

Today, according to the World Health Organisation, the virus has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands. The pandemic, that only started slowing down at the end of the first quarter of 2020 after the widespread draconian measures taken in instituting lockdowns (a strategy that’s had a huge impact on the economic slowdown), seems to be coming back; while I’m writing these lines, countries that were first to ease their lockdowns are also starting to register more new cases thought by many to be a “second wave”. In the meantime, many other parts of the world are still experiencing the curve of infections that’s nevertheless yet to be “flattened”.

The Black Death pandemic, also known as the bubonic plague, peaked in the mid-14th century and caused an estimated 75 million to 200 million deaths. 

As it is impossible to predict exactly when and where a new pandemic may emerge, the best way to defend ourselves against such threats is to always be ready for them to strike.

The vast range in the death count points to the rapid spread and lethality of the plague. Until today, there has been no way to accurately measure the extent of damage suffered by the Europeans. 

The Black Death was able to spread so quickly between countries and continents because, at the time, people were already engaging in extensive cross-border trade.

Modern-day’s globalisation has only exacerbated this situation. People can now travel between countries in a matter of hours. The result is an unprecedented level of human interaction that can bolster the spread of viruses and diseases.

As it is impossible to predict exactly when and where a new pandemic may emerge, the best way to defend ourselves against such threats is to always be ready for them to strike. When societies are unprepared, the effects of pandemics are swift and unforgiving.

In fact, the rarity of pandemics is a double-edged sword. 

Due to the low probability of pandemics occurring, societies quickly become complacent and find preventive measures redundant. 

Policy actions are typically reactionary rather than precautionary, and often come too late. As such, stakeholders are often unequipped to deal with pandemics and have much to lose.

Impact

Discussing the impact of a pandemic has never been more apt. 

The COVID-19 outbreak has already crippled most economies. 

Read the OECD policy brief: Strategic foresight for the COVID-19 crisis and beyond: Using futures thinking to design better public policies

Thanks to multiple coronavirus relief bills since the beginning of the pandemic, the United States alone has committed more than US$ 6 trillion to fight the virus (CARES Act, HEROES Act, etc.) and stimulated the economy through aid for jobless Americans, liability protections for businesses, and relief for state and local governments among, other spending. 

This can be attributed to a few factors. 

Firstly, during a health crisis, considerable resources are often diverted to healthcare to curb infection rates, facilitate treatment and save lives.

A sudden spike in the number of people who require treatment can put a strain on a country’s healthcare system. This often leads to increased spending needed on medical equipment and human resources such as nurses, doctors and other essential workers. 

In a pandemic, many countries often need the same, limited resources, thereby potentially exacerbating competition accessing them.

As demonstrated by the COVID-19 crisis, infectious diseases can lead to widespread lockdowns, which devastate both supply and demand.

If there’s one hard lesson the COVID-19 pandemic can teach us, it’s that of preparedness.

A very wide range of companies suddenly find themselves at risk of bankruptcy, leading to potentially massive layoffs. With people losing their incomes, standards of living are likely to fall. 

Recovery will also be stunted, as countries cannot easily rely on foreign demand to kickstart economic growth. As a consequence, economies can be left damaged for extended periods of time.

We can expect less-developed countries to fall into a vicious cycle where there are limited resources to treat patients, which encourages the further spread of diseases. 

Poor living conditions and unsanitary environments compound the challenges developing nations face as they tackle COVID-19. 

Global productivity will fall, and the damage may take years to overcome.

If there’s one hard lesson the COVID-19 pandemic can teach us, it’s that of preparedness.

It’s important, from now on, to start emphasizing much more on preparedness.

Global Governance: Planning for the world after COVID-19 by Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government and Professor of Global Economic Governance, Oxford University

Beyond OECD’s recommended immediate measures to invest in health, support transitions by helping people and businesses in hard-hit sectors move into new activities, strengthening income protection, facilitating rapid firm restructuring and accelerate digitalisation, maintain liquidity support and be prepared for renewed financial turmoil or planning the recovery by building more resilient supply chains with larger stocks and more diversification of sources, keeping interest rates low and ensure public spending and taxation policies support economic activity or investing public finances for people’s well-being, focus on fairness…

It’s crucial to improve our predictive and preparedness models: instead of worrying about the inevitable, investors, political leaders and citizens should search for ways in which they can prepare themselves – and perhaps even try to thrive – in the face of potential disasters.

As Stephen King once wrote, “There's no harm in hoping for the best as long as you're prepared for the worst”.

This piece is an excerpt from the recently-released Paris Talks eBook.  Shrewd Thinking: Staying Prepared Against Humanity’s Greatest Threats is a prudent call to action for anyone in a leadership position to take the steps required to survive and even thrive in the face of a disaster. Planning alone isn’t enough anymore. Adapting is the new normal.

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Michael BAHATI

Founder & Curator, CITY TALKS

I enjoy doing research on a wide range of topics for my passion about self-education but also for professional interests around ideas festivals curation, partnership, and promotion efforts.

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