Lessons of Covid for the next pandemic

Public health experts say that another pandemic is inevitable, that it is not a question of ‘if’ but when and what form it will take. So what lessons have we learned from the Covid-19 pandemic we just had (and that still lingers on) that we can apply to the next one?

Clearly scientists and health experts were scrambling to contain the virus and various measures were adopted, not all of them successful. Some will depend on the nature of the virus itself and how it is transmitted. If it is in the form of droplets that fall, then physical distancing will help though the distance required may be different from the six feet that we were told. If the virus is transmitted in the form of aerosols that float through the air and linger longer, distancing may not help. But in either case, masking helps but only if we use high quality N95 or KN94 masks and not the paper or the homemade cloth ones. So having a stockpile of those good masks at the ready to hand out to the public would be a good idea.

Avoiding crowded indoor spaces where lots of people gather is also recommended. If one has to be indoors with others, it would be better if the place is well ventilated.

Working at home, if possible, is probably beneficial. When it comes to closing down schools, offices, and restaurants, the cost-benefit analysis is more complicated.

One positive thing that came out of this pandemic is that scientists seem to have developed new techniques to quickly identify the nature of the virus and develop vaccines for it. Of course, that will not help much if the same nutters who opposed vaccinations the last time around are still vocal.

Kevin Drum provides a comprehensive list other the measures that were taken and how effective they were.


  1. another stewart says

    One of the lessons to be learned is the necessity of performing well designed adequately powered (randomised controlled) trials on interventions. There was a huge amount of essentially worthless research.

    Britain didn’t handle the epidemic particularly well, but the NHS was one of the few organisations to perform effective trials, and Britain also did a lot of the viral sequence monitoring work.

    As Kevin Drum’s commentariat has noted his evaluations apply (when they are accurate) to coronaviruses; they do not necessarily apply to other viruses (and non-viral pathogens).

    With hindsight the two big failures at the start of the epidemic (after the tardy response by the Wuhan adminstration) were failure to recognise the degree of under the radar transmission, and the failure to recognise that it was an airborne infection -- people were worrying about respiratory droplets and viral transmission via surfaces rather than aerosols. If these had been recognised earlier other mistakes could have been avoided.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    One of my best friends teaches epidemiology. I called him in January 2020 (when Covid was still mostly confined to China but was starting to spread and there was a website with a dashboard showing where it had spread to), and asked him what was going on. His answer was extremely instructive and went more or less as follows:

    1. I don’t know what’s going on. Nobody knows what’s going on. At this point it is not possible, even in principle, to know what’s going on. Epidemiology is a history subject. We are still learning things about the Spanish flu pandemic, and that was over a century ago. It is fundamentally impossible to understand what is going on in a pandemic while you’re IN the pandemic.

    2. On the basis of (1) -- if you encounter a source that claims to know what is going on, and speaks with authority about precisely how this is going to go down, ignore them, because they are lying. And crucially, keep ignoring them.

    3. It is not (as was being said at the time) “just flu”, and it is not (as was being said at the time) going to just go away by itself before summer. It will likely not be over by Christmas, but how much longer will be hard to tell.

    And that was it. That was all he would say, because that was all he could say. He didn’t feel the need to say “follow the scientific advice and get vaccinated as soon as such a thing becomes available” because he knows me well enough to know that I’d do that anyway.

    There’ll be another pandemic, the scientific community will do its best, and with hindsight some of the things they recommend will turn out not to have made much difference. He tells me now, with some authority, that mask wearing was mostly a waste of time except inasmuch as it reminded people to wash their hands and keep their distance -- the masks themselves weren’t doing much. It doesn’t mean it was a waste of time wearing them -- it was the best we knew at the time. It’s expecting too much to expect the people in charge to do much better next time, because by definition they’ll be operating from a position of almost complete ignorance again. All they can do is give the best advice they’ve got, and all we can do is follow it.

    Call me a sheep if you like.

  3. JM says

    I think an important thing that the people giving recomendations need to consider is that the population at large doesn’t like evolving recommendations. It likely would have been better to make nothing but the obvious limit contact recommendations until they could be somewhat confident of them. In an uncertain situation it’s impossible to be sure of recommendations but Covid early one was marked by recommendations changing every month. Once they changed a couple of times people stopped taking them seriously.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    The Swedish authorities tried to go a middle way that mostly fit the recommendations in your link.

    When statistics over excess deaths (the best indicator) became available after 1-2 years it turned out Sweden did fairly well. By not making restrictions too harsh people respected the restrictions for the duration of the pandemic -an important psychological factor.
    Also, engage the skeptics in the debate and explain why sacrifices are necessary, but accept some kooks will never be happy. Don’t let them hijack the narrative.

  5. raven says

    .1. One of the things we learned in the USA was that a significant percent of the population will not cooperate with any public health recommendations.
    Many of those will catch the virus, some will be very sick, and some will die.

    .2. A group of the population will deny that the virus exists.
    They will also claim that the virus is a plot by the Globalists, Chinese, or Democrats.
    They will not notice that these two claims contradict each other.

    .3. The antivaxxers will claim the vaccines are designed as part of a UN depopulation program and everyone who gets them will drop dead.
    They will not notice that the only people dropping dead are the ones infected with the virus.

    .4. The quacks will come up with magic drugs that cure the virus. No telling what they will be but they may just recycle hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin.

    .5. Many of the Red state governors will decide to do absolutely nothing to fight the pandemic outbreak.
    They will also refuse to even count the number of cases and number of dead.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    The US is still losing at minimum 40-50 people per day to COVID-19 (the stats trickle in so slowly to the Centers for Disease Control that only those over a month old seem like settled data, and I feel sure they still miss plenty).

    Ergo, we need a better and more rigorously enforced national system of reporting and analysis, just for starters.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    The problem I always have with stats like “50 people A DAY die of Covid in the US” is that they never, EVER say “compared to flu, which killls only 2, and cancer which kills only 20”. And I suspect the reason for this is that those numbers aren’t right, and the truth is that yes, 50 people a day die of Covid in the US and every one of those deaths is a tragedy for those involved and those left behind… but in 2023 flu killed about 60 people a day (average), and in 2017 the number was more like 140. Cancer killed a little over ten times that.

    This isn’t just about Covid, it’s almost all stats in every sphere of reporting. “This thing just cost taxpayers twenty MILLION dollars!!!11!!1!”. Well twenty mil is a lot of money TO ME, but in the context of a national tax take it’s peanuts. Stats -- any stats -- are entirely meaningless without context.

    And in context, 50 deaths a day from Covid is… acceptable? As in -- is it reasonable to expect to do better than we do with flu? Because we are doing, just.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    sonofrojblake @ # 7: … they never, EVER say “compared to flu…”

    Pls see my link, which includes a chart of “Deaths Involving Pneumonia, Influenza, or COVID-19” (and each of those individually), plus “Deaths from All Causes”.

    The “week ending 3/30/34” line, for example, shows 724 c-virus deaths, 58,471 from all causes, 3,578 from pneumonia, and a mere 230 from flu.

    To hijack a line from the great Cyndi Lauper, data changes everything.

  9. garnetstar says

    To think that GW Bush, and then Obama, made all these plans and had a book in readiness about what procedures the government could do when a pandemic broke out. (They were most afraid of an airborne virus, who would have thought?) These were only general procedures for the government to take, as was said, no one knows what specifically to do when a specific pathogen arrives. But they were the best procedures that all their medical scientists, etc., could come up with.

    In 2016, Trump threw the book away.

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