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‘Big insurance premium’ needed to prepare for future pandemics

Image: Norwegian University of Science and Technology [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Repeated pandemics could ‘grind down our civilisation’ and lead to ‘permanent setback’, says Martin Rees

The government must be prepared to pay a “big insurance premium” to cope with future disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic, according to a former Royal Society president, Martin Rees.

Medical advances made since the beginning of the outbreak “may allow us to cope better with future pandemics”, Astronomer Royal and co-founder of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, told a virtual meeting organised by the Scientists for Labour campaign group on 5 May.

However, he cautioned against complacency.

“I think we have learned a lesson in this one: we have learned that we do need to prepare,” he said. “Of course, the problem is that politicians tend to focus on the short-term and the local—and anything that’s long term and global tends to drop down the agenda.”

As a result, politicians get “complacent” and are “surprised and unprepared” when disasters occur.

He compared the need to prepare for pandemics to having a home-insurance policy.

“You pay for your fire insurance even though your house is not likely to burn down because you know other houses have burned down…

“Whereas if you have a global event where even one occurrence is too many then, until it has happened, you get complacent, you think it will never happen and you don’t prepare adequately for it.

“I think we have learned the lesson that it is worth paying a big insurance premium in order to be able to cope better with a very serious potential disaster like this.”

Although he doesn’t think the pandemic poses an “existential risk” to humanity, Rees says many believe that “if events like this were recurrent, they could have an effect of grinding down our civilisation so that we would have a permanent setback to civilisation, if not to life”.

Nevertheless, the scientist, who has been a Labour member for 40 years, said the government should not be criticised too harshly for their response to the pandemic.

“As regards the way in which decisions are made, I think the government was perhaps cautious and, in retrospect, should have perhaps taken urgent actions sooner,” he said. “But back at that time, I don’t think very many people were arguing that stridently—so one shouldn’t blame them too much.”

Asked about preparations for future disasters, Rees described the climate crisis as a “slow motion version” of the current crisis.

“On the timescale of 10, 20 and 50 years we are going to get a real global catastrophe if we don’t do something now, that’s an issue which is harder to keep at the forefront of politicians’ minds and the public’s minds.”