Mini advent calendar of Xrisks: Pandemics

The FHI’s mini ad­vent cal­en­dar: count­ing down through the big five ex­is­ten­tial risks. The fourth one is an an­cient risk, still with us to­day: pan­demics and plagues.

Pandemics

Cur­rent un­der­stand­ing: high­
Most wor­ry­ing as­pect: the past ev­i­dence points to a risky future

The deathrates from in­fec­tious dis­eases fol­low a power law with a very low ex­po­nent. In lay­man’s terms: there is a rea­son­able pos­si­bil­ity for a plague with an ab­solutely huge ca­su­alty rate. We’ve had close calls in the past: the black death kil­led around half the pop­u­la­tion of Europe, while Span­ish In­fluenza in­fected 27% of all hu­mans and kil­led one in ten of those, mostly healthy young adults. All the char­ac­ter­is­tics of an ul­ti­mately deadly in­fec­tion already ex­ist in the wild: any­thing that com­bined the dead­li­ness and in­cu­ba­tion pe­riod of AIDS with the trans­mis­si­bil­ity of the com­mon cold.

More­over, we know that we are go­ing to be see­ing new dis­eases and new in­fec­tions in the fu­ture: the only ques­tion is how deadly they will be. With mod­ern global travel and trans­port, these dis­eases will spread far and wide. Against this, we have bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion and bet­ter trans-na­tional in­sti­tu­tions and co­op­er­a­tion – but these in­sti­tu­tions could eas­ily be over­whelmed, and coun­tries aren’t nearly as well pre­pared as they need to be.