Is the Coronavirus Our Worst Enemy? Or Are We?

Science suggests that we may unwittingly be our own worst enemy.

Posted May 19, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has been likened to a war in which the virus is our invisible enemy. But, another adversary may be working against our defeating the virus. We may unwittingly be our own worst enemy.

President Donald Trump has alleged that the novel coronavirus is “a very brilliant enemy.” Science writer Matthew Hutson has suggested that “viruses are quite conniving for things that are not alive.” And, Dr. Sanjay Gupta has called viruses “exquisite and crafty hijackers” and “our most formidable foe.”

If combatting the coronavirus pandemic were merely a war of wits, then this wouldn’t even be a fair fight: The human brain contains 86 billion nerve cells (or neurons), whereas a SARS-CoV-2 particle (or virion) that causes COVID-19 contains zero. But, viruses have evolved noncerebral mechanisms of infection and reproduction that can destroy or disable their brainier hosts. Viruses have thereby leveled the battlefield, leading many to question whether we are truly wise enough to merit our self-aggrandizing moniker—homo sapiens.

Yes, we humans have reproduced in vast numbers, developed amazing technologies, and reshaped our planet’s land and waterways. Yet, these and other feats have also produced unfortunate, unintended belated consequences—consider the immediate clean energy created by nuclear fission, but the delayed problem of disposing of hazardous radioactive waste.

Might we really be unable to engage in the kind of long-term planning that could have prevented the limited initial outbreak of COVID-19 from escalating into the current pandemic? Might we simply be incapable of implementing effective ways to shorten the ongoing pandemic or to moderate its likely recurrence?

It should be clear that we do have these capacities. Consider that, in 2005, Senators Barack Obama (D-Illinois) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) warned in The New York Times that a disease outbreak “could cause millions of deaths … and threaten the security of governments around the world.” They deemed it essential “to take decisive action to prevent a pandemic,” and outlined specific steps for doing so. President George W. Bush repeated their warning, cautioning that “if we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare. And one day many lives could be needlessly lost.”

Over the next 15 years, some forward steps were taken; nevertheless, inaction and even backsliding followed. What went wrong? Why were we so unprepared? And, why are we now still struggling to end this nightmare? We propose an explanation based on basic principles of neuroscience, psychological science, and behavioral economics.

Praemonitus, praemunitus?

Like other animals with highly developed brains, we have inherited the capacity to anticipate and to prepare for future events. Seeing, hearing, and smelling distant stimuli means that these events can function as "signals," permitting us to hasten the receipt of rewarding stimuli and to delay or to prevent the receipt of punishing stimuli. Being able to sense distant stimuli thus proved vital to the evolution of foresight and preparedness, leading to the Latin expression, praemonitus, praemunitus, and to its English equivalent forewarned is forearmed.

However, sights, sounds, and smells can be detected over very limited physical distances; so, the time intervals over which those signals operate are necessarily brief, urging us to respond with all due speed. In nature, it is highly likely that "one who hesitates is lost" and that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." However, these short-term contingencies clearly compete with the long-term contingencies posed by a pandemic or by global warming.

Haste makes waste

Perhaps more than any other animals, humans have extended the ability to look into the future, affording us the opportunity to forecast and to prepare for remote cataclysmic events. The deep-seated problem we face is that innumerable immediate demands are likely to drain time, energy, and resources from properly preparing for those more distant prospects. So, in the constant contest to adapt to both short-term and long-term contingencies, the former are given far more weight than the latter: Delayed outcomes are discounted outcomes!

This economic relationship has been formalized in what’s called the "delay discounting" function and has been instantiated by the well-known marshmallow test of Walter Mischel—a test of self-control that children frequently fail by choosing a single marshmallow now over more marshmallows later.

To put the matter most simply: Although we may very well know what’s in our best long-term interest, short-term demands sidetrack us from adopting the optimal course of action. This account explains the two most irrational aspects of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Our inadequate preparations despite decades of ominous warnings 
  2. Because of the economic and psychological toll of job and business loss, our impulsive efforts to prematurely "reopen the economy" despite strong evidence suggesting that doing so will feed the virus even more hosts and further deepen the already depressed economy

What must we learn from the coronavirus pandemic? The government can fulfill vital functions if it enacts effective mechanisms and appropriates sufficient funds to meet the public’s long-term needs.

History provides clear examples. People frequently fail to plan for retirement, leaving them penniless. The solution: the United States Social Security Administration. Natural disasters inevitably strike leaving people homeless. The solution: the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

Pandemics too are inevitable. The solution: an independent federal agency that is properly tasked, chartered, funded, and sheltered from imprudent monetary reallocation. If we are truly wise, then we will not repeat our past mistakes. As Mark Twain said: “There is nothing to be learned from the second kick of a mule.”

This posting was a joint effort: Edward Wasserman is Stuit Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at The University of Iowa. Thomas Zentall is DiSilvestro Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky. The authors are editors of the Oxford Handbook of Comparative Cognition, Oxford University Press.