Faye Flam at Bloomberg:
It’s surprising how easy it is to brush off dire existential threats. We remain, for example, unprepared for the next pandemic flu, though experts warn it’s only a matter of time before a new strain capable of killing millions will emerge. As epidemiologist Michael Osterholm and writer Mark Olshaker wrote recently in the New York Times, we aren’t even prepared for this year’s seasonal flu. The outbreak has killed 37 children as of late January, according to the CDC.
Osterholm and Olshaker wrote that much more money must go into the development of a so-called universal flu vaccine — one that would protect against any of flu’s many strains, including any new versions of the virus that might jump from animals to humans, as happened in 1918. In that pandemic flu, between 50 and 100 million people died.
The argument makes sense, but it’s unlikely flu vaccine researchers will get a big boost. Why? One problem is that we citizens of the 21st century have also been warned about our “woeful” lack of preparedness for Ebola and similar disease outbreaks, a major earthquake, sea level rise, nuclear war, and a massive asteroid striking the earth. And if that isn’t enough, experts at MIT and Cambridge University are discussing how unprepared we are for threats of technology run amok, such as intelligent machines taking over the world.
In short, we’re all at risk of getting burned out on impending disasters. It can feel useless to get prepared for any one of these threats when all the others loom. We could try to rank and prioritize them in a rational way, though it’s not easy. Some of these risks, such as the major asteroid strike, aren’t likely to happen soon, but they will be very, very bad when they do happen. Others are more likely to occur in the coming decades and will kill lots of people, but they won’t end the world.