Seven years ago, the White House was bracing itself for not one pandemic, but two. In the spring of 2013, several people in China fell sick with a new and lethal strain of H7N9 bird flu, while an outbreak of MERS—a disease caused by a coronavirus—had spread from Saudi Arabia to several other countries. “We were dealing with the potential for both of those things to become a pandemic,” says Beth Cameron, who was on the National Security Council at the time.
I first worried about the possibility of a double pandemic in March. Four months ago, it felt needlessly alarmist to fret about two rare events happening simultaneously. But since then, federal fecklessness and rushed reopenings have wasted the benefits of months of social distancing. About 60,000 new cases of COVID-19 are being confirmed every day, and death rates are rising. My worry from March feels less far-fetched. If America could underperform so badly against one rapidly spreading virus, how would it fare against two?
COVID-19 has made clear what happens when even powerful, wealthy countries are inadequately prepared for rare but ruinous events. Months into the pandemic, international alliances are strained, resources are diminished, and experts are demoralized. The longer this fiasco drags on, the more vulnerable America becomes to further disasters: inbound hurricanes, wildfires, and many other viruses that lie in wait.
COVID-19 has steamrolled the country. What happens if another pandemic starts before this one is over?