By Bulletin Science and Security Board, April 15, 2020
On January 23, 2020, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward to 100 seconds to midnight. We board members warned then that the world’s institutional and political capacity for reducing the possibility of civilization-scale catastrophe had been diminished, and the need for emergency action was urgent. In our statement, we explained that because of the worldwide governmental trend toward dysfunction in dealing with global threats, we felt compelled to set the Doomsday Clock closer than it had ever been to apocalypse.
Three months later, the transformation of the novel coronavirus outbreak into a global pandemic is demonstrating the importance of domestic and international governance, not only in the mitigation of and response to global challenges such as a pandemic, but also in their prevention. In short, as the world is now seeing, governmental dysfunction can cost lives. Competent, timely actions to prevent and mitigate future global crises—whether they involve biological, nuclear, climatic, or other major threats—will depend on the world’s ability to address three fundamental governance concerns.
The first involves the need to repair a worldwide erosion of infrastructure for managing crises. We noted in January that leaders had undermined cooperative, science- and law-based approaches to managing the most urgent threats to humanity, helping to create a situation that will, if unaddressed, “lead to catastrophe, sooner rather than later.” This dysfunction is most evident in the United States, where active political antagonism toward science and government-sanctioned disdain for expert opinion have led to the dismantling of programs crucial to disaster prevention (such as the US Agency for International Development program for warning of pandemics) and mitigation. The COVID-19 pandemic shows the dangers of dysfunction at many levels of government, exacerbated by failures to provide adequate authorities and resources necessary for a robust response.
Our second concern relates to immediately arresting and rapidly reversing the decreased commitment among nations to international cooperation. In our Doomsday Clock statement, we highlighted a disturbing trend, in which influential leaders had denigrated and discarded the most effective methods for addressing complex threats—international agreements with strong verification regimes—in favor of their own narrow interests and domestic political gain. Over the years, there has been no dearth of calls for increased international cooperation on biothreats—just a startling lack of response to those warnings. Imagine for a moment if a September 2019 report by the World Health Organization’s Global Preparedness Monitoring Board about the lack of preparedness for a lethal respiratory virus had been heeded:
A rapidly spreading pandemic due to a lethal respiratory pathogen (whether naturally emergent or accidentally or deliberately released) poses additional preparedness requirements. Donors and multilateral institutions must ensure adequate investment in developing innovative vaccines and therapeutics, surge manufacturing capacity, broad-spectrum antivirals and appropriate non-pharmaceutical interventions.
Our third concern centers on addressing the manipulation and distortion of information that has led to a deterioration of governmental and civic response to global threats. A chaotic and corrupted global information environment now leads, far too often, to the devaluation of facts and rational discourse. Indeed, the World Health Organization describes the information environment surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic as an infodemic, making it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance.