Scheue. It's a German word for the moment a horse is stung by a wasp. The strategist Christian Madsbjerg insightfully uses it to encapsulate something we have all felt: an "atmosphere of flailing attempts at action amid an indecipherable deluge of data points."
The world is in a state of scheue. As Coronavirus began its exponential spread, countries, cities, markets, sports leagues, and conferences either didn't act on the right data or froze in a state of inaction. Then the wasp stung. Heads of State, diplomats, star athletes, celebrities and politicians infected and quarantined. Conferences and concerts, entire countries shutting doors. Market volatility at Great Recession levels.
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Here is the rub: the wasp wasn't flying too quickly for the world to see it before it stung. And further, we could have built a system to turn its sting into a manageable prick. But we didn't — and its indicative of a problem far larger than the coronavirus.
Right now, those in charge of the world's most important decisions are not behaving preventatively. They are behaving reactively.
Years ago, the emergency preparedness programs to roll out a sober, coordinated response to a pandemic could have been better funded and more carefully prepared. Abundant, patient capital for labs and startups developing breakthrough, reliable diagnostics technologies could have flowed. While those types of programs and investments take time, rarely dominate headlines and win elections, they create futures with less of the chaos and suffering we now experience. They are almost always less expensive. And most importantly, they don't require playing Roulette with human lives.
Coronavirus will not permanently cripple humanity. But it is our dress rehearsal for the future threats that can.
We know what many of these threats are. The electrical grid, providing the power we depend on for nearly everything, remains vulnerable to cyberattack, solar and physical threats. Preventing that problem is relatively cheap (we're working on it). Development of lethal autonomous weapons, the next nightmare in the future of war, continues to proliferate while preventative action to regulate the technology stalls. Between 1979 and 1989, a few brave scientists, against considerable odds, got excruciatingly close to addressing climate change. Now we face down the barrel of perhaps the nastiest Frankenstein humanity has helped build.
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This is the time to implement big, bold, but common-sense measures to prepare for future crises.
Make it legal for labs and universities to clear tests and drugs early in an outbreak. After State and Federal officials rejected pleas from labs like Stanford and the Mayo Clinic to develop early diagnostics for Coronavirus, those labs listened to the data, realized the threat and went ahead anyway -- an act of civil disobedience against the federal government. Bioinformatics expert and investor Balaji Srinivasan has it right: "right to try" laws need to be expanded to make this legal. Reputable labs must be free to develop and clear tests and drugs without bureaucratic limitations in times of crisis.
Reinstate and strengthen the office of Global Health Security and Biodefense. The White House used to have a dedicated directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense inside the National Security Council. It was built specifically for times like these -- to manage a swift and effective response to a global pandemic. In 2018, the entire office was dissolved. It should be immediately reinstated and strengthened.
Strengthen the World Health Organization -- and listen to it. Fifteen years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated the International Health Regulations, creating a single plan for the world to most effectively respond to future outbreaks. The plan designated the WHO to be the central global body that oversees the response. The problem is, this time the plan didn't work. Dozens of nations simply didn't follow the rules; at times not reporting outbreaks at all, refusing to share data and forcing ineffective and harmful travel restrictions against constant guidance. Plans like this will continue to fail unless international bodies like the WHO are greatly strengthened. Data access and curation is the key here. The WHO, not individual countries, needs to be equipped with robust and resilient digital global infrastructure (cloud computing, data lakes and analytics) directly supported and funded by the G-8 nations as a price for admission to that exclusive club. Willingness to share and curate data must be tied to the ability of any nation to engage in international trade – where the result for non-compliance is sweeping economic sanctions in the name of public safety.
Soon, we will return to our cocoons, pre-occupied by the next meme, the next election, the next Bachelor. When we do, note the subtle feeling that the wasp is buzzing towards us, still far enough away to do something about. And let's swat it away.
Henry Elkus is CEO of Helena, "an organization that identifies global problems, does diligence on potential solutions, and executes those solutions in the form of tangible projects."
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