THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic is a warning for humanity. It is a reminder that, despite all our technological progress, humanity remains vulnerable to catastrophes that shake the world.
Many have taken to calling 2020 an unprecedented time—but the truth is precisely the opposite. We have long been vulnerable to devastating pandemics. The Black Death of 1346-53 killed around one-tenth of the world’s population, including about a third of the people in Europe. The introduction of European diseases into the Americas may have killed as many as 90% of the people living there—again a tenth of the world’s population. And just a hundred years ago, the 1918 flu (the first truly global pandemic) killed about one in 30 people across the world. What would have been truly unprecedented is if our vulnerability had ended. This catastrophe is simply part of a very long-running trend.
Yet there is one sense in which our time is without precedent. With the development of nuclear weapons in the 20th century, humanity’s escalating power finally reached the point where we could cause catastrophes on the largest possible scale: the destruction of our own species, and with it, everything we could have achieved or become. Like all species, we have always been vulnerable to a small background of natural extinction risks, but these have now been outstripped by risks of our own creation. The existential risk of nuclear war was soon joined by that of extreme climate change, and this century will bring even greater risks from advanced biotechnology and artificial intelligence. Will we wake up to these risks in time, taking the steps needed to control them, or will we continue to focus on other things until the risks catch up with us? This will be the defining question of our age—and perhaps of the entire human story.
One of the greatest challenges in managing existential risks is that we have to survive our entire future without ever falling victim to them. If an existential catastrophe struck, it would be too late to learn any lessons. We thus have to eke out every possible lesson we can from the warnings we do receive: the near misses, such as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and the catastrophes that were severe, but survivable, such as the pandemics of 1346, 1918 and 2020.
We certainly will learn lessons from covid-19, improving our defences against similar pandemics. And 2021 will be our best chance to do so, when we have recovered just enough to be able to raise our eyes to the future, but while the shock of the past still stings. However, without a great effort, I fear we will learn only the narrow lessons—those that might help prevent a re-run of 2020—while failing to address the increasingly important threat of engineered pandemics, or the array of other existential risks we face. This is a rare opportunity to change course, because it won’t be long before the societal antibodies from this once-in-a-century pandemic begin to fade. We should make the most of it.■
This article appeared in the Aftershocks section of the print edition of The World in 2021 under the headline “We must heed the pandemic’s warning”