“Preparedness” Won’t Stop the Next Pandemic

Sheila Jasanoff in the Boston Review:

The COVID-19 pandemic has confounded the world’s expectations at every turn. It began in surprise, continued with chaos, and devolved into conspiracy theories. From a policy standpoint, it gave the lie to our prepandemic imaginations of order and control. Public health experts, after all, had warned of an outbreak for decades. But despite its prominence among the grand global challenges that successive U.S. presidents were advised to take seriously, it still caught this nation and many others flatfooted. Nineteen months into the pandemic and counting, the balance sheet of losses and gains in the United States leans negative across public health, the economy, and democratic politics. How can we begin to make sense of a widely predicted crisis that, by late October 2021, had carried off nearly 5 million lives worldwide, stalled economies, and placed unprecedented strains on social ties and personal liberty?

The mistake, I argue, was to overestimate the certainty of our predictions and our capacity for control. Prediction as a policy tool focuses on identifying chains of causation and assessing their likelihood before bad things happen. That approach has scored great successes, most notably in alerting the world to the threat of climate change well before droughts, wildfires, and record-breaking storms showed ordinary people that weather was turning calamitous. Prediction, however, also falters under the weight of its own ambitions.

More here.