The next pandemic is on its way. Are we prepared?

Historically, pandemics have occurred time and time again, each one affecting the world in drastic but markedly different ways. The last major one to plague the world was the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic (CDC, 2019), which took the lives of at least 50 million people worldwide, including about 675,000 Americans. More recently, although quite often ignored, was the 1957-1958 flu pandemic, which killed 1.1 million people worldwide, including 116,000 Americans (CDC, 2019). Since then, there have been many small epidemics of various diseases, including the Ebola virus in 2013 and SARS in 2002. Given this historical trend, it was only a matter of time until the next pandemic hit, and to scientists, it has long been obvious that the world was, and still remains, unprepared to deal with this inevitability. 

Although it takes a perfect storm of conditions to escalate an infectious disease outbreak from an epidemic to a pandemic, the conditions are more favorable for such an event than they have ever been. In comparison to both 1918 and 1957, traveling worldwide is much easier, allowing for viral transmission to accelerate quickly. Additionally, population density worldwide continues to increase, and humans are steadily encroaching on previously uninhabited environments––environments that facilitate the transmission of novel diseases from animals to humans. 

With this changing nature of global interactions, being able to predict what kind of virus will cause the next pandemic theoretically gives scientists a considerable advantage over the rise of the pathogen. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, many scientists believed that an influenza virus would cause the next pandemic, based on the historical trend. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a coronavirus, one that had never been seen before. This gave the virus, with all its evolutionary might, a head start over scientists.

Regardless of the type of virus or its place of origin, the next pandemic is on its way, perhaps sooner than we might expect. And despite the lessons learned from a year and a half of COVID-19, the world still remains shockingly unprepared for it.

To talk of the rise of another pandemic when we still remain in the shadow of COVID-19 seems alarmist, paranoid and perhaps premature. Everyone is tired of seeing the same grim headlines day after day detailing the death and destruction caused by the virus as well as the massive changes in lifestyle brought about by precautionary measures and lockdowns. However, it was in our complacency that the virus was able to grasp such a firm hold upon the country in the first place. 

The world’s shocking failure to control COVID-19 and respond quickly and confidently to the threat should be a wake-up call to everyone. Scientists are doing their job to protect everyone from the virus, which is part of why they produced healthy, safe and effective vaccines so quickly. But with a disease that primarily wreaks havoc through close physical contact in communities, it takes the cooperation of the general public to ensure that people remain protected from this virus or any future ones along history’s incessant march forward. 

To take a deep breath and put our guard down once the current pandemic ends would not only be deadly, but would also undo all the work that society has done over the past year and a half. Though the news may paint a picture that depicts many Americans as uncaring towards their peers (the anti-mask, anti-vaccination crowd), the truth is that the real silent majority has been diligently taking care of their neighbors and others around them by practicing social distancing and getting vaccinated. But to forget these values and the lessons learned after a brutal experience living in the world of COVID-19 would be devastating. If the world were to repeat another saga such as that of COVID-19, despite already knowing the grim effects of pandemics, it would be disrespectful to those affected by COVID-19. 

But the question remains: How can we, as a society, be better prepared when the inevitable next pandemic arises?

The answer lies in education. The vast majority of those who refuse to mask or get vaccinated are uninformed or misinformed in some way. Teaching science, basic biology and chemistry, is important to help people understand how disease works. But beyond this, it is also important to teach media literacy. Better media literacy education at young ages would help prevent people, especially while they are young and impressionable, from falling into the trap of believing false information online and in the news. Fake news and misinformation on social media were some of the largest culprits driving the anti-mask and anti-vaccination movements—movements that proved deadly over the course of the pandemic (Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 2021).

But beyond education, it is important to appeal to the emotional senses of future generations. The deaths of four and a half million people worldwide, with 700,000 in the United States alone, should not be regarded as just a number in a textbook going forward. Properly memorializing those who lost their lives will help to ensure that this does not become another forgotten pandemic. 

The world today has the science and resources to ensure that future pandemics do not harm the world to the degree that COVID-19 has. But it takes more than resources to make sure people are safe, healthy and protected. Though we are not out of the woods with COVID-19 yet, we are strategically positioned to begin laying the groundwork for a more pandemic-prepared world. Losing the momentum we have gained would devastate future generations. Bolstering  education and changing responses to disease now will ensure that when the next pandemic comes, be it five, 100 or 1000 years from now, the world will be ready. 

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