Before it even began, the pandemic was already on the radar of big risks — and yet we were unprepared. Will it be the same for cyber security and environmental threats?
PARIS — The epidemic surprised us, but it was predictable. In the risk report regularly published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) for its annual Davos summit, infectious diseases were listed every year as one of the 10 biggest threats. The report's description of a virus spreading uncontrolled around the world was exactly what played out in 2020.
There were frequent discussions at Davos about this type of danger. For example, in 2016, after the damage caused by Ebola, the general director of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, sounded the alarm about the next pandemic. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, drew a parallel with the Spanish Flu, evoking the risk of an illness that killed 30 million people. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft-cum-health philanthropist, insisted on the necessity of training teams in public health management and logistics.
If this health crisis is causing so much suffering, it's because we refused to seriously prepare for it. We didn't follow the advice of the philosopher and engineer Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who pushes us to think about catastrophe to prevent it from happening. "The paradox of the prophet of doom is that he announces impending misfortune so that his audience can find the energy and intelligence to avoid it," he explained last summer in the French daily Le Monde.
The time has therefore come to think about the next global catastrophes — the less predictable ones. "If you want peace, prepare for war" goes the old Latin adage. Luckily a major conflict among allied nations, seen in the last century, doesn't seem as likely today. Yet there are major military interventions to come, surely in the Middle East, and potentially around Taiwan…
Without a doubt, there will also be social crises, but they'll probably remain localized. The global proletariat still hasn't followed the orders engraved in gold on Karl Marx" tomb — they don't unite. Sooner or later, there will be financial tensions provoked by the uncontrolled accumulation of private and public debt, or an uncontrollable return of inflation.
The major perils — the ones that could create worldwide catastrophes — are of a different nature. The ten risks considered the most threatening to the Davos folk illustrate this idea. Except for infectious diseases and weapons of mass destruction, they all fit into two categories: digital and natural. And what happened with the pandemic can help us prepare for both.
The digital world has two dangers: system malfunctions and cyber attacks. Google's worldwide shutdown on December 14th after a problem with its identification system gave a glimpse of what this kind of massive outage could look like, and the consequences weren't just a missing search bar. "I'm sitting here in the dark in my toddler's room because the light is controlled by @Google Home," tweeted Joe Brown, Editorial Director of the publisher Hearst.
The lesson here is clear: As auto manufacturers (re)discovered when the epidemic began in Wuhan, China, where many automobile parts are manufactured, resilience requires diversification. It's similar to the old maxim, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." It is for this same reason that preserving biodiversity in agriculture is important, as crops too dependent on a single variety could be wiped out with one big disease.
Resilience requires diversification.
Cyber attacks have also become a permanent threat. One of them, surely Russian in origin, is currently hitting the United States. In September, a cyber attack caused the death of a patient in Düsseldorf, Germany, as it paralyzed the IT system of the hospital where she was being treated. A similar strike could block the digital systems controlling water, electricity, airports, part of the internet… even if the network was created by a military project aiming to ensure the continual transmission of information. Vigilance against these attacks must be permanent. The same is true of viruses.
The other genre of catastrophic events is environmental: extreme weather, water shortages, natural disasters… "Climate: the next threat?" proclaimed the Toulouse School of Economics in their latest review. "In the long term, no challenge is greater or more urgently requires evidence-based action than climate change," declared Christian Gollier, the school's director.
Unlike the pandemic currently invading everyday life, it's difficult to convince the greater public of the need to act swiftly on these looming challenges that still seem too abstract. But as Gollier notes: "The COVID-19 crisis showed us that when there's a collective will, everything is possible."
Progress can accelerate at a stupefying pace. Money can fall from the sky. Perhaps we can't completely avoid the next catastrophe, but it's within our power to limit the damage.