zingales25_Vithun KhamsongGetty Images_covidworld Vithun Khamsong/Getty Images

The Political Lessons of COVID-19

Even if the world can muddle through this pandemic without an effective system of global governance, it cannot necessarily muddle through the next one – or through other problems like climate change that also require global solutions. If we do not learn this lesson, our species deserves to become extinct.

CHICAGO – If an evil mind were to engineer the perfect virus to wipe out an animal species, it would choose the optimal combination of transmissibility and infection fatality rate. But to eliminate humanity, the evil mind would have to develop a virus capable of neutralizing human responses to it – not just individual responses (which are insufficient to deal with a pandemic) but collective ones, too. A perfectly engineered killer virus thus would be able to exploit the inefficiencies in our collective decision-making. As it happens, that is what the SARS-CoV-2 virus appears to have achieved.

If we do not believe in intelligent design, we should not believe in evil design either. Still, Darwinian evolution tells us that survival pressure will eventually generate more effective viruses. Many new viruses have jumped from animals to humans, but none in the last 100 years was as devastating as SARS-CoV-2.

Yes, COVID-19 is less lethal than Ebola and less infectious than the common cold. When the more lethal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) first appeared in 2012, it was contained and largely eliminated within the space of just a few months. Why, then, has COVID-19 proved so elusive? Because it plays to the weaknesses of our institutions. And in so doing, it provides a useful lesson in what we must fix in order to tackle future existential threats.

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