Two and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic, half a billion documented cases have led to well over six million deaths worldwide. From the vantage point of 2022, Michael Osterholm’s 2005 Foreign Affairs essay, “Preparing for the Next Pandemic,” is chilling—and enraging—reading. It was only a matter of time before a viral disease turned into a global epidemic, he warned, generating “a reaction that would change the world overnight.” The turmoil he predicted is now all too familiar: limited supplies of ventilators, face masks, and antiviral drugs; waiting for the development of a vaccine, to which only “a few privileged areas of the world” would initially have access; foreign and domestic travel reduced or shut down; economies disrupted by trade barriers; and governments destabilized by “widespread infection and economic collapse.” A pandemic “cannot be avoided,” Osterholm wrote. “Only its impact can be lessened.” To achieve that, “much more needs to be done.”
For a time, U.S. officials heeded the advice. In response to the alarm bells sounded by Osterholm and other public health experts, President George W. Bush’s administration took steps to improve the country’s pandemic preparedness. But it was not long before public attention waned and policymakers pivoted to other priorities. After the inevitable pandemic arrived, Osterholm wrote, there would be cause to judge “how well government, business, and public health leaders prepared the world for the catastrophe when they had clear warning.” The human and economic toll of COVID-19 suggests that the verdict today will not be good.
— Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Editor