From a food and traditional medicine market with hundreds of exotic wildlife packed in cages, a new and deadly respiratory virus emerges. An unprecedented lockdown of Chinese society fails to contain the virus, which proceeds to sweep across the planet, spreading death and shutting down economies from Italy to India. As the virus spikes in major U.S. cities, the federal government deploys U.S. Navy hospital ships to Los Angeles and New York. Shortly upon arrival of the USNS Mercy in LA's port, a U.S. citizen, believing the ship is part of a federal takeover, derails a freight train toward the ship. The train stopped 250 yards short of the vessel. No, that was not the latest summer blockbuster. It was the real summer of 2020.

As summer turned into fall, it seemed the effectiveness of national responses to COVID-19 were determined by each society's ability to resolve their social coordination challenges more than their access to technology like hospital ships. COVID-19 has sculpted into high relief already recognized societal problems, which could be addressed once COVID-19 passes. Failure to do so could be a failure to learn the meta-lessons from COVID-19. Among them are at least these three:

  1. A Change in the Relationship Between People and Wildlife and Livestock. COVID-19 is not the first zoonotic infection to deal out death on an international scale. SARS, another zoonosis that emerged from the large-scale trading of wildlife in Chinese markets, swept across 35 countries and killed hundreds of people before being contained through diligent efforts of the international public health community.
  2. Find a Way to Agree About What's True and False. America is in the grips of a culture of kneejerk partisanship, anti-establishment thinking, and associated conspiracy theorizing. This is not just a manifestation on social media, bots, or Russian propaganda. In a recent RAND study, my team found that correlations among antiestablishment tropes on Twitter largely mirrored the patterns we observed in a nationally representative survey. We found that 42 percent of parents falsely believed flu vaccine could give someone the flu, 26 percent believed the CDC was hiding vaccine side effects, and 23 percent believed a deep state controlled the elected U.S. government.
  3. When Times Are Good, That's the Time to Prepare for Rare but High Impact Events. In the months and years before COVID-19 began its pandemic spread, people were focused on issues they now may hardly remember, but that seemed most urgent at the time. There was not enough preparation for an event like COVID-19 even though experts had warned that global pandemics, particularly of zoonotic origin, were an ongoing threat.

Read the full article about lessons from COVID-19 by Luke J. Matthews at RAND Corporation.