In the face of the coronavirus challenge, we are witnessing a range of reactions.

There are those who are hoarding as if for the zombie apocalypse. There are a large number of folks minding the news and the recommendations and responding accordingly — concerned but not panicked. And then there are those who are choosing to ignore the pandemic, wholly convinced that it won’t happen here and it certainly won’t happen to them.

It is happening. And how we react — and learn from our poor judgment or missteps — will be crucial when the next pandemic comes along.

And it will.

Vox noted this week that the main uncertainty in the coronavirus outbreak in the United States now is how big it will get, and how fast. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Nancy Messonnier told reporters on March 9, “many people in the U.S. will at some point, either this year or next, get exposed to this virus.”

According to infectious disease epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch at Harvard, it’s “plausible” that 20 to 60% of adults will be infected with COVID-19.

The speed at which the outbreak plays out matters hugely for its consequences. What epidemiologists fear most is the health-care system becoming overwhelmed by a sudden explosion of illness that requires more people to be hospitalized than it can handle. In that scenario, more people will die because there won’t be enough hospital beds or ventilators to keep them alive.

As Vox noted in its article, “A disastrous inundation of hospitals can likely be averted with protective measures we’re now seeing more of — closing schools, canceling mass gatherings, working from home, self-quarantine, self-isolation, avoiding crowds — to keep the virus from spreading fast.”

So, after the coronavirus has been contained, how will we have changed? Will we be more inclined to believe the experts and to value medical science? Or will we still put our faith in social media? Will our reaction be proportionate to the stock market performance? Will we ignore facts? Pan the media?

There is a lot working against us at the moment.

As one writer noted this week, “Particularly, the indifference we have felt to predictions of existential calamity may be taken way more seriously than before COVID-19. Predictions of disasters that did not happen, like the Y2K computer alarm, have lulled us into thinking bad things will not really happen: A fix would be found.”

Now we are struggling with an assault that will be seminal in its impact, personally frightening and economically devastating. We cannot buy or fight our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. An immunization is a year and half away. And we still have no idea whether it will work.

So this will be our wake-up call.

And it should be. We have allowed ourselves, through terrible leadership and misplaced trust, to wait too long. The threat is upon us, and it is scaring us at very personal levels. How we conduct our lives has been affected at a fundamental level. This is a health emergency.

And yet the irony runs thick.

We are willing to react and overreact on a global scale to a health threat, but we continue to ignore the climate emergency that we have been facing now for 40 years. Not 40 weeks. Not 40 days. Not 40 minutes.

For four decades we have been told and shown — by leading experts across our planet — that if we do not take action, come up with mitigating steps, we will face another seminal moment that will define generations to come.

We have maxed out that credit card. We cannot buy any more time.

COVID-19 needs to be an existential crisis for us, too. We cannot live blissfully ignorant, and then be upset when our routines are threatened. We cannot keep acting out of selfishness and convenience because it suits our individual needs.

This pandemic is scary because we were underprepared, and we chose not to act when action was required. The threat is real.

And as history has shown us time and again, it repeats itself. Open your eyes to the threats facing not just our day-to-day lives, but our tomorrows.

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