Lessons from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on societies across the globe, leading to high numbers of fatalities, putting immense pressure on health systems, and disrupting social and economic life. The pandemic has exposed failures across all levels of risk prevention and mitigation in many countries and regions in the world.

The ‘Lessons from COVID-19’ project aims to assess the global pandemic response and distill key lessons from this response to improve prevention and mitigation of global catastrophic risks (GCRs) in the future. In the first stage of the project, we seek to map out key junctures and decision points which shaped the outcomes of the pandemic for better or worse, and assess counterfactuals, such as how different decisions may have altered the course of the crisis. Our ultimate goal is to ensure that the lessons and narratives emerging from COVID-19 are broad and compelling enough to improve GCR prevention and mitigation in the long term.


Health experts and scientists have been warning of the high likelihood of pandemic occurrence for years. The outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the H1N1 influenza virus, and Ebola, demonstrated that these warnings did not refer to mere theoretical possibilities. Yet, the world proved inadequately prepared when COVID-19 emerged and quickly spread across the globe.


COVID-19: a Failure of Risk Prevention and Mitigation 

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed failures across all levels of risk prevention and mitigation. It provides a striking and compelling example of how actors, institutions, and systems can fail to prevent large scale mortality and societal harm, even when much of the knowledge needed to do so is available. Pandemic risks were foreseen by a broad range of actors, including the World Bank, which had noted that a future pandemic was inevitable, and the UK National Risk Registry, which had placed the risk of a pandemic as high. Governments generally possessed information about how to better prepare for a pandemic, as pandemic training exercises in various countries showed substantial gaps in pandemic preparedness, which were often not acted on. Natural pandemics like COVID-19 are arguably one of the GCRs we are best prepared for as a society - many of the other risks we study at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), such as those from emerging technologies, have much less mature knowledge bases and governance structures. 

gabriella-clare-marino-2vgx9eOmH0I-unsplashIdentifying Key Lessons to Improve Global Risk Resilience 

This project will therefore ask how lessons from the management of COVID-19 can inform more robust risk prevention and mitigation in other areas. What could or should have been done better, by individuals, institutions, and international organisations? How much of this can only be seen in hindsight, and how much was known at the time? As an interdisciplinary research centre with strong networks in academia and policy internationally, CSER is especially well-positioned to bring together the relevant perspectives and expertise to answer these questions, and to ensure that the lessons learned from COVID-19 are broad enough to improve resilience to all global risks, not just pandemics.