What an Invisible Microbe Has Taught Us – Again!

It’s none too soon to draw some lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic, because many of these are, in fact, very old lessons that we have forgotten or, much worse, have denied and rejected for various reasons.  Here are some “highlights”. 

  • All living (or life-like) systems are capable of exponential replication, which means that we can easily be fooled into complacency when a lethal virus outbreak is still relatively few in numbers and far away.   
  • The more we have to lose from a pandemic, perversely, the more likely we are to deny the threat until it becomes undeniable.  Then it may well be too late.
  • By far the best way to respond to a pandemic threat is to take decisive action as soon as possible.  This worked well for the much more lethal Ebola virus in Africa, which was quickly contained.  The outbreak of Covid-19 and its rapid spread in Wuhan, China, should have been equally alarming, and activating.  It was not, for most of us, though there were many experts who tried to warn us.
  • For a disease that can spread so fast, with such devastating consequences, advance preparations for coping with it are literally a matter of life and death.
  • There are two ways of arresting the spread of a highly contagious disease like Covid-19: (1.) widespread testing, contact tracing, and isolation of those who are infected, or (2.)  social distancing and isolating everyone (and shutting down the economy).  South Korea and Singapore are models for the first approach.  The U.S. and most other countries have shown us why this approach is far preferable.  Next time, we need to be better prepared! 
  • Masks, and gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE’s) are a matter of life-and death, especially for our health care workers but for a great many others as well.  Because the need for these items can grow very fast, and very far-flung, during a pandemic, we should have had a large national stockpile at the ready.  Our capitalist “just in time” medical supply chains are subversive to this objective.  Our appalling national deficiency, worse than in some third world countries, has been nothing short of criminal.  We will need to make a major change in the “incentives” that govern our health care system. 
  • Our inability to mount a national Coronavirus testing regime, even to this day, is equally shameful and costly.  It’s another black mark for our health care system that must be remedied going forward. 
  • Just as a football team needs a leader and play coordinator (a “Tom Brady” in the words of Washington’s governor Jay Inslee, himself a model Coronavirus leader), next time we will need a President that understands the gravity of the task and the Federal government’s proper role.  Donald Trump’s actions (and inactions) have cost us lives, and it may get much worse. 
  • There is reason to hope that there will be some silver linings in all this:  For instance, it is likely that the shift away from face-to-face (F2F) meetings to more “virtual” social contacts, especially when it involves travel, will become permanent;  we are also likely to reconstruct and augment the Obama era interagency pandemic preparedness task force, which the current administration inexplicably scrapped; just as we maintain a strategic oil reserve, we are likely in future to maintain a national PPE reserve; we will all (or most of us, anyway) do a much better job of personal hygiene like washing our hands, and the like; not least, there will likely be a “regime change” in Washington this Fall.  If we can take the Covid-19 lessons to heart, next time we will be better prepared.      




Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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