Read: We were warned
Of course, experts on infectious disease knew a pandemic would soon strike. In 2018, my colleague Ed Yong wrote that “a new infectious disease has emerged every year for the past 30 years.” A few weeks ago, my colleague Uri Friedman explained how intelligence officials and other experts had been warning, since 2012, of a pandemic that could destroy Americans’ way of life. In 2015, Bill Gates, not exactly a little-known figure, described the threat of an infectious virus in a speech that’s been watched millions of times on YouTube.
Nevertheless, outside the infectious-disease community, Americans and our leaders blithely hoped that the virus would somehow pass us over. Even though intelligence reports alerted the White House to the coronavirus threat as early as November, lockdowns in the U.S. did not begin until March. On January 22, the president said, “We have it totally under control.” Even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of outbreaks in the U.S., on March 2, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio urged New Yorkers to “get out on the town.” On March 5, Surgeon General Jerome Adams told Fox News that the risk of coronavirus “is low to the average American.”
Even I, a health reporter, did not initially realize how quickly the virus would descend on the United States, how severe its toll would be, or what shape the fight against it would take. There’s knowing something will happen, and then there’s understanding how, exactly, it will upend your life. On March 2, I spoke with Helen Chu, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, and she told me that schools might soon shut their doors and sporting events might be canceled. I doubt it will come to that, I thought. After all, our leaders had assured us as much. Within days, schools were closed and the NBA had suspended its season.
Read: The upside of pessimism
That kind of naive optimism in the face of encroaching disaster is a pitfall of owning a human brain, several experts on the psychology of risk perception told me recently. People have trouble appraising exponentially growing problems, seeing exactly how they themselves might be affected, and understanding the best way to help when disaster arrives. Our brains aren’t designed to anticipate threats such as pandemics, which allows the tiny, brainless pathogens to get the upper hand as we fumble along. The only way to counteract these biases, experts say, is to prepare ahead of time. Which is, alas, something the United States also failed to do.
Perhaps for the good of entrepreneurs, American Idol hopefuls, and buyers of real estate on Miami Beach, humans are remarkably bad at imagining everything that could go wrong in a given situation. “We’re likely to have an excessively rosy outlook on life,” says Hersh Shefrin, a behavioral-finance professor at Santa Clara University.