We need to steel ourselves for things getting worse, while at the same time also preparing and fighting for measures that might make things better.
It’s always perilous to look far into the future, especially for something as fast-moving as this. But I think there are two reasons why it’s important right now.
First, the choices we make immediately, not in the usual timeframes of crises, like within days or weeks—I mean literally right now—those choices are going to have a huge difference on how well the country fares in the future.
Secondly, even people who have been thinking about pandemics had not anticipated some of America’s failures. If we are to have any hope of averting the worst-case scenarios, we need to become much better about imagining the worst and the best possible futures.
Wells: So it’s important to think about the end now, because we have some control over it.
Wells: Both of you have been talking for months, if not years, about this being a possibility. Did you anticipate how this would go? What’s been surprising to you?
Yong: I think it was very clear that a pandemic was inevitable—
Wells: It wasn’t clear to me! I’ve got to say this has been a big shocker.
James Hamblin: You should listen to Episode 1.
Yong: Right, okay. Well, I wrote a piece in 2018 about pandemic threats for The Atlantic. That is not the only piece that was out there. That a catastrophe of this kind would happen was absolutely inevitable. But that being said, I and everyone else I spoke to, almost to a person, thought that the United States was better prepared than it has proven to be. It has so substantially underperformed. It is still, I think, hard for people to believe.
Wells: Well, what about you? Is it hard for you to believe?
Yong: I think the extent to which the United States has flinched in the face of this virus has been truly surprising. The view that I found most helpful in framing the national posture toward this crisis came from a man named Ron Klain, who was the so-called Ebola czar, the man who coordinated America’s response to the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014. He pointed out that if you look at the countries that have done a really good job handling this pandemic—places like South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong—not only did those countries do specific things like widespread testing, but it’s also not a coincidence that a lot of them had firsthand experience with SARS in 2003. That, I think, is important.
The countries that have some experience of what a very fast-moving, possibly pandemic respiratory virus can do to a population have a sense of how to react. It’s like a legacy of medical know-how and a sort of national readiness that I think we in America and perhaps a lot of other industrialized countries just simply lacked. Ron said, and I think very rightly, one of the most common sentences uttered in America today is “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” And that is not something that someone in Hong Kong would have said. That inexperience goes back to what I was saying about the failure of imagination.