COVID-19 ISO Insights

Societal Trends Have–and May Continue to–Heighten Pandemic Risk

March 23, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU

The impacts from coronavirus have reverberated throughout society. As countries and cities across the globe reportedly scramble to simultaneously contain the virus and mitigate disruptions, a question looms for if, and when, the fallout from coronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19, is eventually managed:

What if this happens again?

The Wall Street Journal has reported on the societal trends that may have increased the likelihood of global pandemics, including this coronavirus, of occurring. These developments include:

  • Urbanization
  • Globalization
  • Increased consumption of animal proteins

While the scope of coronavirus may exceed any other disease that has spread in the 21st century, the WSJ notes that we have seen a spike in “viral scares, including SARS in 2002 and 2003, the swine flu (also known as H1N1) in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2014 to 2016, Zika in 2015 and Dengue fever in 2016."

An economist at the University of Wyoming College of Business expressed to the WSJ that history indicates only three of these occurring each century, a threshold that has already appeared to be surpassed in the 21st century.

How do These Global Trends Increase Likelihood of Spread?

With respect to urbanization, the WSJ points out that no country has experienced urbanization at the rate that China has in the past quarter century. In 1980, only 19% of the Chinese population resided in urban areas. In 2018? 59%.

Urbanization may exacerbate the spread of a disease due to the inherently dense nature of these areas, which is an environment conducive to virus spread. Also, in lieu of traveling in a private vehicle, potentially sick individuals may expose others by using public transit.

The surge in Ebola cases several years ago, per the WSJ, represents an example of an urban environment contributing to a spread. Ebola was not new at the time of the outbreak, but it reportedly emerged into a significant threat when it began to spread in dense cities in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Globalization, including tourism activity, is another factor to consider. Wuhan, the city that is reportedly the epicenter of the current coronavirus outbreak, hosted about 20 million tourists in 2000, a number that increased to 288 million in 2018.

Additionally, it stands to reason that the importance of the globalized supply chain, which inherently leads to interdependencies from a wide range of companies around the world, may disincentivize the preemption of a potential viral threat before it becomes rampant. For example, the WSJ notes that reduced travel and trade could be a negative consequence of early reporting, such as when efforts were made to contain mad cow disease in December 2003. As a result of the U.S.’s reporting of this, Japan, per the article, did not take any imports of U.S. cattle for over about a year, transactions that typically account for roughly $1 billion.

Lastly, with respect to the increased consumption of animal proteins potentially contributing to the spread of viruses, the president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit research group that tracks global disease events through their own database, told the WSJ that people and their livestock are coming into closer contact with wildlife, such as bats, that can be direct carriers of the disease.

Will Lessons from Coronavirus be Carried Over?

While it does not appear that fallout from COVID-19 has been eliminated, much can be learned by reflecting on both the causes of the outbreak and the techniques applied in attempts to contain it.

As mentioned earlier, there could be a cost that may correspond with early reporting of a potential disease. But after experiencing the significant economic toll that an outbreak can levy on society, losing out on a year’s worth of trade may seem more palatable.

Additionally, this outbreak may represent one of the first, if not the first, international crises that has developed and evolved in real-time in the social media era. Disinformation has reportedly been prevalent during this outbreak. With heightened awareness of this issue, perhaps international organizations and governments will likely be able to more effectively preempt the spread of disinformation that threatens worldwide efforts to contain a virus.

Technology reportedly has also played a role in efforts to contain the spread of the virus. There have been reports of artificial intelligence and open-source serving as useful tools to track mutations and help limit the spread. This real-time deployment could enable the establishment of a standard and allow for more seamless integration of technology into preventing, or containing, future outbreaks. And in the future, The Quantum Daily has reported that there may be various potential applications of quantum computing to tackle epidemics, ranging from the use of technology to assess viral spread to expediting the process of developing treatments after an outbreak has begun.

Lastly, this outbreak may have exposed vulnerabilities in supply chains that appear to require more resilience. While the outsourcing of products across the world may benefit the economy and keep prices down for consumers, the final tab for global disruptions could be amplified by the reported lack of appropriate contingency plans in place. For instance, will more medical equipment and generic drugs, which are typically produced in other countries, be manufactured in the United States to hedge against future pandemics or other disruptions?

Awareness of a risk doesn’t automatically translate to preparation. In order for the lessons of this painful outbreak to not go in vain, it appears that steps may need to be taken as we live in a world that may pose an escalated threat of pandemic outbreaks moving forward.