But as the moral philosopher Toby Ord argues in his new book, The Precipice, we are much less adept at anticipating potential catastrophes that have no precedent in living memory. “Even when experts estimate a significant probability for an unprecedented event,” he writes, “we have great difficulty believing it until we see it.”
This was precisely the problem with the coronavirus. Many informed scientists predicted that a global epidemic was almost certain to break out at some point in the near future. Aside from the warnings of legions of virologists and epidemiologists, the Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, gave a widely disseminated Ted Talk in 2015 in which he detailed the threat of a killer virus. For a while now, a pandemic has been one of the two most prominent catastrophic threats in the government’s risk register (the other is a massive cyberattack).