Opinion: The COVID-19 pandemic wasn't 'unprecedented', it was depressingly predictable

Opinion: We're hearing a lot about how 'unprecedented' this pandemic is, often from politicians, defensive over whether they acted quickly enough. 

The implication of 'unprecedented' in that context is usually 'no one could have seen this coming so don't critique my response so harshly'. But the truth is, everyone could have seen this coming - there is literally no catastrophe more predictable than a pandemic.

We were warned in 1918 when more than 50 million died, we were warned again during 1957's influenza outbreak when another million died. We were warned in 2002 by SARS, 2009 by swine flu, 2014 by Ebola and infinitely backwards through human history from the Black Death to the Plagues of Athens. 

Communicable disease is the oldest enemy we have. Professor Brian Faragher, emeritus professor of medical statistics at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, estimates up to 5 percent of everyone who ever lived died from malaria

This is not a novel point. There's been an embarrassment of headlines in the last decade, from Bill Gates to the BBC, all beating the same drum: the world is not prepared.

Yet not only did we not heed these warnings, we've doubled down on behaviours which are practically begging the next pandemic to be worse. 

To be clear, this isn't an attempt to score points against any one nation's response to the coronavirus. Partisan finger-pointing helps no one when viruses are oblivious to both geography and politics.

Whatever your beliefs, three things are indisputably true:

  • another pandemic will come
  • the global response to COVID-19 exposed many holes in pandemic preparation 
  • human activity is making pandemics more frequent.  

Since 1980, the number of outbreaks per year has more than tripled and since 1960, the number of new communicable diseases has increased fourfold. While the reasons for this are various and complicated, the global appetite for meat is primary. Almost every pandemic is caused by a 'spillover event', where disease causing microbes successfully leap from an animal species into humans. 

Most of the time, when those microbes stay inside the animals they evolved alongside, there's no issue. Ebola microbes don't kill bats, but when Ebola successfully migrates into humans, it devastates its new habitat. 

The global meat trade has made the likelihood of animal-borne pathogens entering humans exponentially more likely than 200 years ago. The wet markets of Wuhan, as far as we know the birthplace of the current pandemic, were a particularly egregious example. 

But before anyone gets on their high-horse, go visit a battery farm for chickens and then tell me how much more thoughtfully we treat our food in the west. Viruses, and their slightly more advanced relatives, bacteria, couldn't dream of a better breeding ground than among millions of birds crammed into a confined space to live and die in their own filth. 

And to anyone dismissing this as a Green-voting vegan rant about how we need to return to the Earth and subsist off lentils and best wishes, I eat meat and adore it. We just need to more clearly acknowledge our role in this cyclical crisis. 

In the way we eat, we've lit a bonfire in our backyard, hurled fuel on it for a hundred years and are now staring dumbfounded as the whole street catches fire. Again. 

COVID-19 has been horrific but we've so far avoided the nightmare scenario. Estimates of COVID's mortality rate vary from 3.4 percent to as low as 0.12 percent. Compare that to the H5N1 strain of influenza, which has a 60 percent mortality rate in humans. 

If H5N1, using the ever-spinning slot machine of viral evolution, hit the jackpot - long incubation period, high rate of human-to-human transmission and a 60 percent death rate - it wouldn't be just economy-shattering, it could be nation-ending. 

I'm not writing this to scare anyone, only to stress that communicable disease is an ever-present global threat and our behaviour affects that threat. At some point we stopped taking that seriously, and worse, started letting it surprise us. 

The speed and scale of the global response to the coronavirus has, for all its flaws, been inspiring and gives me hope that when the next one comes, we'll have learned the right lessons.

Because the next one is already on its way. The next one is always on its way.  

Finn Hogan is the digital editor for Newshub Nation.