In late 2015, just after the H1N1 pandemic hit home, the Norwegian government formed a task force called the Reference Center on Emerging Diseases (KSF) to develop a post-crisis plan. Some decisions it has since reversed, but the committee did make some simple, and relatively innocuous, suggestions. It looked at developing social partnerships, and eventually recommended a public/private partnership to help prevent pandemics. The task force faced criticism because H1N1 showed that no one can predict which illnesses will be pandemic prone.
The recommendations passed when the KSF task force completed their report in October 2015. They were promptly forgotten in the general desire to put everything on hold after an Ebola-like outbreak. But swine flu came back in 2016. The government followed up with a follow-up report that talked about “serious shortcomings” in the Norway’s crisis preparedness mechanism. It was that simple.
Today, everyone’s memory is focused on the emergence of new diseases. The virus comes out of nowhere, and unlike a terrorist attack or natural disaster, we have the power to (and should) react immediately with every possible virus containment or prevention measure.
The history of pandemics is anything but an equation to draw up a pre-crisis emergency plan, however. Every single version of the following five historic pandemics shows they arise when something goes wrong in global markets.
That’s not true of every epidemic. The bubonic plague spreads slowly; often before a pandemic is obvious. Yet if a crisis accelerates significantly, as the digital financial collapse did, it will always become obvious.
How does a government, or a university, contain a mutation of a hot infectious disease, or a runaway crisis? The easy path for the government to follow is to add more government functionaries and infrastructure, in response to a crisis. And do so in a climate that rewards those people who spend public money at overfunded national prestige projects.
The downside to this trajectory is that in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the government gave that priority to misguided subsidy schemes for the digital publishing sector. Unfortunately, these projects will use infrastructure that’s also going to need support for people and things to actually get online.
Financial markets are about to start getting smoke signals.
Fundraising is probably going to be really difficult.
How do things like computers and medical devices fit into all this? When the H1N1 pandemic hit, firms held back investments in the technology needed to make vaccines and emergency alert systems. Tech’s been profitable, and its large capitalization gave it too much privilege to invest in something like a pandemic flu vaccine when viruses made for easy firefighting.
Tech today has made great advances in creating bespoke solutions for issues other than pandemics. Imagine a pandemic outbreak where disease killing machines actually emerged to kill people, and the answer is that tech needs to be deployed quickly. It’s always been easier to deploy information and data analytics software to a problem than it is to treat it.
In other words, in both cases, companies have had expensive solutions to knee-jerk political decisions. So what now?
There are likely going to be serious incentives for governments to fund “hardtech” and moonshots. But odds are they will find themselves the recipients of these innovations, and future innovations, not in their existing budgets, but in the budgets of other public departments.
For the rest of us, the future looks bleak. The only people in high-technology really left with the freedom to make the bold innovative decisions and deliver the incremental market-ready solutions and platforms that governments want will be those in Silicon Valley and a few other select pockets. The rest of us, with the exception of two world economies, are stuck with the formula of those that chose to do nothing after a financial crisis.
Perhaps there is some chance that there’s a seed of hope in seeing big global companies scrambling to get a seat at the table.