Predicting Pandemics: Lessons from (and for) COVID-19

This is a live online discussion between Jonathan Fuller and Alex Broadbent, hosted by the Institute for the Future of Knowledge in partnership with the Library of the University of Johannesburg. Comments and discussion are hosted on this page, and you can watch the broadcast here:

We know considerably more about COVID-19 than anyone has previously known about a pandemic of a new disease. Yet we are uncertain about what to do. Even where it appears obvious that strategies have worked or failed, it will take some time to establish that the observed trends are fully or even partly explained by anything we did or didn’t do. And when we take a lesson from one place and try to apply it in another, we have to contend with the huge differences between different places in the world, especially age and wealth. This conversation explores these difficulties, in the hope of improving our response to the uncertainty that always accompanies pandemics, our ability to tell what works, our sensitivity to context, and thus our collective ability to arrive at considered decisions with clearly identified goals and a based on a comprehensive assessment of the relevant costs, benefits, risks, and other factors.

Further reading:

Professor Alex Broadbent (PhD) is Director of the Institute for the Future of Knowledge at the University of Johannesburg and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg. He specialises in prediction, causal inference, and explanation, especially in epidemiology and medicine. He publishes in major journals in philosophy, epidemiology, medicine and law, and his books include the path-breaking Philosophy of Epidemiology (Palgrave 2013) and Philosophy of Medicine (Oxford University Press 2019).

Dr Jonathan Fuller (PhD, MD) is a philosopher working in philosophy of science, especially philosophy of medicine. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Research Associate with the University of Johannesburg. He is also on the International Philosophy of Medicine Roundtable Scientific Committee. He was previously a postdoctoral research fellow in the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Toronto.

2 thoughts on “Predicting Pandemics: Lessons from (and for) COVID-19

  1. Thank you for your very informative talk, Alex. I would like to ask what is the long-term strategy behind the lockdown? Since the measures cannot be sustained for a very long period, and since COVID-19 is unlikely to be eradicated completely by the lockdown, what is the best-case scenario of the politicians who are now deciding to extend these measures? It seems to me that WHENEVER we loosen the measures to resume economic activities at some scale, be it after Easter or in June/July, there will be a number of infections that will probably challenge even the most developed health system. (An lockdown/opening zig-zag cannot be a solution of course.)

    So isn’t a lockdown of 2 months or more just postponing the problem into the indeterminate future, with a lot of economic and otherwise harm in the meantime? Wouldn’t it be better to prepare a timely opening up right now?

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not against buying time with a lockdown, for increasing hospital capacities, for research on treatment, etc. but it seems to be that is has to be limited because otherwise the costs will be overwhelming and the fundamental problem—what happens of we loose the measures?—will not be solved.


    • Thank you Jan. I do not know what the long-term strategy is. I suspect that it’s still not clear locally. There is no global consensus to follow, and I suspect people are hoping for a medical intervention (e.g. vaccine) that will enable us to avoid the question. But even if one becomes available, it’s possible that poorer countries won’t have access to it for one or other reason for a considerable time. So planning is essential. Here, again, I believe that proper modelling – not of rate of infection alone, but of severe/critical and fatal cases – is necessary, within the African and other developing contexts. I’m pretty amazed that this isn’t being discussed; if it’s being done, it’s not getting the attention it deserves. Will the disease have the same impact in Niger where median age is under 16 as in Italy where it is over 46? Modelling infection rates without considering this question is tantamount to saying that we can assume age makes no difference. But we know it does. So do other things: but we know. a lot about the prevalence of the main risk factors associated with COVID-19 death (although not about how they all work). The leading one, hypertension, is also associated with age. Not many 16 year olds have high blood pressure. One can’t develop perfect models but surely the information we have should inform policy, especially when we also know that a country like Niger is much more likely to face serious hunger than a country like Italy. So: no, I don’t think there’s proper thinking about the endgame; and when we start to think about it, some countries may need to take very different approaches to others. Again, I just hope that they do take context into account.

      Liked by 1 person

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