Download document


The world knows an apocalyptic pandemic is coming ( Foreign Policy, 20 September 2019)

Anew independent report compiled at the request of the United Nations secretary-general warns that there is a “very real threat” of a pandemic sweeping the planet, killing up to 80 million people. A deadly pathogen, spread airborne around the world, the report says, could wipe out almost 5 percent of the global economy. And we’re not ready.

The ominous analysis was compiled by an independent panel, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), which was assembled last year in response to a request from the office of the U.N. secretary-general, and convened jointly by the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO). Co-chaired by the former WHO head and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and the head of the international Red Cross, Elhadj As Sy, the GPMB commissioned expert studies and issued a scathing attack on the political, financial, and logistical state of pandemic preparedness affairs.

“Preparedness is hampered by the lack of continued political will at all levels,” read the report. “Although national leaders respond to health crises when fear and panic grow strong enough, most countries do not devote the consistent energy and resources needed to keep outbreaks from escalating into disasters.”

With no intention of degrading the GPMB’s effort, I must sadly say that this core message has been shouted from the rafters many times before, with little discernable impact on tone-deaf political leaders, financial enterprises, or multinational institutions. There’s no reason to think this time will be any different. It’s hard to know what, shy of a genuinely devastating pandemic of killer influenza or some currently unknown microbe, will motivate global leaders to take microscopic threats seriously.

Heard the Sirens

For most of my adult life I have borne witness. That’s my job. I go to epidemics, wars, places where people are struggling to cope with disasters, and I carefully log the accounts and events, trying to represent the lives and experiences of others. It’s always been “others” – people in Zaire in an Ebola outbreak, in Maharashtra coping with the Plague, in Irkutsk watching their entire health system crumble, in El Salvador drinking waters so polluted that the translucent shimmering colors seem other-worldly. The position of “outsider” is emotionally safe, even as agonizing events unfold. Only the emerging AIDS epidemic hit me with sufficient intimacy to topple my comfortable perch on the edges of the emotional circle of grief, as I lived in San Francisco in the early 1980s and attended far too many funerals to count. Still, HIV takes its tolls in slow motion, giving individuals, families and entire countries time to adapt to, even ignore, the mounting death toll. That time lag, South African economist Alan Whiteside tells us, is why it is so difficult to measure the impact AIDS is having on cultures all over the world.

I could not distance myself from the extraordinary sequence of events that fell on America, and especially my home town of New York City, in 2001. A decade later I am still trying to understand how the attacks on the World Trade Center and the anthrax mailings affected me, and those I love. I heard the first jet slam into the north tower of the World Trade Center, and from the rooftop of my apartment building watched the second commercial jet veer towards lower Manhattan, change its trajectory, and slice across the upper floors of the south tower. I was standing on the Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge when the first tower crumbled like a deflated accordion, spewing dust and debris in every direction and crushing the life out of thousands of people within. And a month later, as people started falling ill from inhalation of anthrax spores, one of the nation’s top bioterrorism experts called me to warn that I was a likely target: Stop opening your mail.