Why we weren't ready for the coronavirus pandemic : The Indicator from Planet Money We've had plenty of warnings over the years that we weren't ready for a pandemic. Today on the show: the psychology and economics of why.

Why We Didn't Prepare For The Pandemic

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Hey, everyone. Stacey and Cardiff here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Again and again, the world was warned that it was not ready for a pandemic, warned by the World Health Organization and the World Bank in a big study last year, warned by research scholars and in long magazine articles, warned even by Bill Gates in a famous TED Talk in 2015.


BILL GATES: If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it's most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war.


Also, there have been numerous close calls in the last couple of decades, when epidemics in some parts of the world looked like they might become global pandemics - SARS, MERS, Ebola. And yet even as coronavirus started spreading across the globe earlier this year, people and governments throughout the world were unprepared. There wasn't enough protective equipment. They were slow to produce enough tests for the virus. They took too long to implement social distancing.

GARCIA: Yeah, a big part of the problem is that when it comes to preparing for a global disaster like this one, we humans are fighting an uphill battle against a powerful force - our own brains. The mind is full of psychological biases that can lead us not to take seriously enough these warnings of impending doom.

VANEK SMITH: Economist Tim Harford recently chronicled some of these biases in an article for the Financial Times magazine. And Tim says, for example, that people seem to have what's called a normalcy bias.

TIM HARFORD: Normalcy bias is sometimes called negative panic. It's just this idea that when things are falling apart all around you, there's a total disaster, people very often don't seem to realize how bad things are. They're often surprisingly calm, even when, actually, they should be taking very prompt action.

VANEK SMITH: In a pandemic, the number of infected people grows exponentially - so fast that it can be hard to understand how it's spreading at the rate it is. But normalcy bias might prevent us from seeing just how bad things are getting until we are overwhelmed by the problem.

GARCIA: And this doesn't just apply to global pandemics, and it's not new. Tim says that for evidence of normalcy bias, you can even go all the way back to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year A.D. 79, when people in the town of Pompeii watched the eruption for hours instead of evacuating the city up until the moment that they were buried under its ash clouds.

VANEK SMITH: So that is normalcy bias. There's also something called optimism bias, which is the tendency to think that even if a disaster is happening to, you know, everyone around me, I myself won't be affected, so I don't need to take precautions.

HARFORD: For example, a study of what people expected as Hurricane Sandy was coming in to hit the coast in New Jersey - people actually expected that it would be worse than the meteorologists did. But they thought that they themselves would be fine. They didn't really need to worry.

GARCIA: So that's optimism bias. And there's also the herd instinct, which Tim says just reflects that we are all very social creatures. We take our cues from what other people do. So even as a pandemic is gathering momentum, well, if everyone else is acting like they're not worried, we don't get worried. We don't start wearing masks. We don't start avoiding crowds. We don't get ready to work from home.

HARFORD: Yeah, there was just this general sense of there's a pandemic. There's a - there's this coronavirus thing. It seems pretty bad. It looks pretty bad in Italy. Maybe I should do something. Maybe I should do something. But nobody's really - and then there's that moment where you're like, oh, I need to get toilet paper. I need to get food. I need to get masks. I need to sell my shares. It's too late. Everyone's doing the same thing at the same time. It's the herd instinct.

VANEK SMITH: And Tim reminds us that government leaders and people who work at the agencies that are in charge of preparing the world for a pandemic also have these same biases, so even they might be slow to act until it's too late.

GARCIA: So these psychological biases can help explain why the world did not start preparing itself weeks or months earlier than it did once coronavirus started spreading within China, which is where it originated. But the biases do not fully explain why so many countries throughout the world ignored the warnings of the past and did not have a better plan in place for the next pandemic, even before coronavirus started. And a big reason actually has to do with the ways we make economic decisions. More from Tim Harford after the break.

In good times, one of the reasons that the economy grows every year is that businesses and workers are always trying to become more productive, more efficient. And for the most part, it's great that they do that. Becoming more efficient year after year makes it possible for our wages to go up and for new goods and services to be invented. It makes our lives better. It makes the world a richer place.

VANEK SMITH: But that consistent push to be more efficient also makes it hard for a business to justify spending money on preparing for an event that may never happen, like a pandemic. That's according to economist Tim Harford.

HARFORD: So if you think about a supermarket, a supermarket could say, hey, I'm going to have a supply chain backup. I'm going to have a load of drivers who can deliver online groceries, and I'm just going to pay them to sit around with their vans just in case there's a pandemic 'cause then I'll really reap the benefits because suddenly, I'll have all this extra capacity. That supermarket's going to be wiped out in the market prepandemic.

GARCIA: Yeah. And a similar rationale can also apply to policymakers and to their plans for a pandemic because policymakers answer to the public. And given that there are people who struggle to feed their families right now, people who need health care now, bridges that need rebuilding now, well, it's just hard for a politician to say, hang on a minute; we're not going to spend money on those things. Instead, we're going to spend money on making masks and ventilators that we might never need. And we're also going to spend money on facilities that can develop tests and vaccines for a pandemic that may never come.

VANEK SMITH: It's a really hard sell. In fact, one politician actually did try this back in the mid-2000s.

HARFORD: Arnold Schwarzenegger - when he was the governor of California, he spent a lot of money on this big fleet of mobile hospitals. There were going to be tens of thousands of beds. There were going to be respirators, big stockpile of masks. And the idea was you have an earthquake, you have wildfires or, in particular, you have a pandemic - but, of course, about three or four years later, his successor Jerry Brown cut the funding for the scheme. No one complained at the time, and the stockpile is nowhere to be found.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. The financial crisis hit in 2008, and the state just needed money for other things. And that is why the lack of preparation for future emergencies can be such a hard problem to solve. There are always immediate needs in the economy that we can actually see, and so it's just tough to justify spending money on, you know, a theoretical pandemic that you can't see and might never happen.

GARCIA: Yeah, so we have all this evidence that people and governments are bad at preparing for a pandemic. We don't listen to warnings, and we don't seem to learn much from our past experiences. But Tim argues that the situation is not totally hopeless. He says you can look at how quickly and at how forcefully central banks and governments across the world have acted to prevent a bigger economic collapse in response to the coronavirus.

VANEK SMITH: And that seems to have happened because they learned one of the lessons of the great financial crisis, which is, basically, that you have to throw a lot of money at a problem as quickly as possible. But that's on the economic side, says Tim.

HARFORD: But the people in the WHO, the people in public health - they don't have that same direct parallel, so it's not as easy for them to look back at a recent catastrophic pandemic - you know, not SARS but the flu of 1957 or the flu of 1918. They don't have that recent memory and those recent lessons.

VANEK SMITH: Because coronavirus has been a catastrophic crisis for so much of the world, maybe the world is more likely to learn the lessons it needs to so that it can prepare for the next pandemic, which could be much worse.

HARFORD: Or maybe it's like the financial crisis, which we thought was the big crisis of our life. And it led us to prepare in all kinds of ways. And then the next crisis was something totally different. It was a health crisis. So maybe the crisis after this one is going to be artificial intelligence running riot, or maybe it'll be something to do with climate, the environment. So there's always a danger of fighting the last war. I guess what I'm saying, Cardiff, is that it's hard to be prepared for everything.

GARCIA: Yeah, you know, Stacey, I myself am not worried about AI. Like, I think things will just stay pretty normal. And even if not, I'm optimistic that I personally won't be affected because I look around and, you know, I don't see the rest of the herd freaking out.

VANEK SMITH: And so it begins, again.


GARCIA: We'll have a link to Tim's piece in the Financial Times magazine over at npr.org/money and a link to Tim's own podcast "Cautionary Tales," which is a podcast topically enough about how we make mistakes and learn from them. This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Darius Rafieyan and fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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