By Alexander M. Wegner, One Young World Ambassador and Project Manager at Richard Attias & Associates
The world is facing a twofold crisis: first, a pandemic threatening to ravage public health systems around the globe, if governments and individuals fail to enforce and adhere to strict social distancing to preempt the pandemic from growing exponentially; second, an epidemic of information, in which anyone gets to say anything, credible or not, to advance whatever agenda.
© Alexander Radtke
No matter where you turn to on social media, the novel coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – is being leveraged across the ideological spectrum to enlist the public for political and socio-economic objectives. On the left, the pandemic is being presented as a timely opportunity to advance causes such as universal healthcare, non-capitalist economic models, and climate change mitigation; we are to share in our plight. On the right, the pandemic is being weaponized to combat immigration, democracy, and multilateralism; alas, everyone is to fend for themselves.
While all of these causes warrant reflection and debate, the COVID-19 pandemic is not the context in which to decide on their merit; fear and grief cloud reason and skew public opinion. Instead, this global public health emergency must be taken at face value and lessons learned should center on enhancing preparedness for and responses to epidemics and pandemics alike. In fact, the lag in governmental countermeasures, particularly in countries that have largely been spared of such public health crises in the past, demonstrates that, in a world with porous borders, initially localized, non-imminent threats must be taken seriously and tackled as soon as they arise.
One such threat, looming on the horizon, which unlike the current pandemic is not viral in nature and has not yet gone viral either, is antibiotic resistance. In other words, the rise of bacterial infections that cannot be successfully treated with antibiotics, because the respective strains of bacteria have developed the ability to defend themselves against antibiotics. Since the number of cases remains relatively small and given that pharmaceutical companies will only invest in developing new antibiotics, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, if there is a large market, little has been done to mitigate this threat since the first cases emerged. It goes without saying that if, over the coming years, widespread bacterial infections can no longer be treated with standard antibiotics, for which no replacements are currently being developed, modern medicine would come to an end. The ramifications would far exceed that of COVID-19.
Of course, antibiotic resistance is merely one of countless future threats that could severely impact humanity, some of which could even endanger our very existence. Preparing for these so-called existential risks, which can take a wide range of forms – from Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) to a meteorite impact – are both difficult to anticipate and prepare for. Indeed, an effective task force would likely require a team of subject matter experts, sufficiently versed in a particular field to anticipate threats emanating from it, and a consortium of philanthropic, private, and public donors, willing and able to commit funds to often intangible threats that may or may not materialize. Considering the stakes of these risks, inaction costs far more than action.
Pandemics, like other existential risks, are nothing new; from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, catastrophic events – some natural, some of our own making – have beset humanity throughout history. In each case, normalcy returned eventually, and life moved on, so why care now? Because scientific and technological progress, absent of independent, impartial oversight, not only create opportunities, but challenges that, if left unaddressed or mismanaged, could alter our way of life irreversibly. While this realization must not prompt the misconception that the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity, rather than a global health emergency, it should enable us to see that the havoc SARS-CoV-2 will wreak pales in comparison to probable existential risks.
For the time being, there is nothing more important than minimizing the impact on public health systems, especially in developing countries, to ensure optimal treatment for COVID-19 patients in need of hospitalization. However, in the medium-term, following a thorough investigation of how governments and public health systems responded to this pandemic, action should be taken to establish an international, multilateral agency mandated to identify, monitor, and mitigate probable existential risks – even if localized and non-imminent at this point in time.
For such an entity, which could be called the Global Institute for the Mitigation of Existential Risks (GIMER), to succeed, it should have at least some of the following characteristics:
- Integrated into the United Nations (UN) or established as an independent entity
- Funded by a consortium of philanthropic, private, and public organizations
- Comprised of experts and generalists from across disciplines and sectors
- Advising national governments, corporate and philanthropic leaders
- Educating and involving civil society through reports and projects
Not unlike space exploration, existential risks call for significant investment in the face of pressing and tangible issues that affect large parts of the population, including the electorate. Diverting funds from these issues to distant specters makes no political sense, so long as politics is perceived as a vote-generating enterprise. However, when thinking of politics in terms of inter-generational stewardship, short- and long-term investments clearly need to be balanced. In favoring today’s challenges over tomorrow’s, we are, ultimately, gambling with civilization itself.
Having studied political philosophy, I am inclined to conclude on a contemplative note, but as the silence of philosophers on issues unfolding in real time suggests, philosophy rarely offers solutions, and certainly none that are readily applicable. Yet, now that those of us who can, are working from home, we might want to unshelve one of the many Great Books, in the hope of retrieving recurring questions and striving to answer them to steer our long-term future.
“The most pressing problems of our time . . . have no simple solutions because they have such deep roots . . . The return to the longue durée is not just feasible, it is imperative.” –David Armitage & Jo Guldi, “Bonfire of the Humanities”