As I’ve begun my sophomore year at Yale, a line from Christopher Nolan’s spy-thriller movie “Tenet” has been in my thoughts. Neil, the supporting character, delivers the following ending monologue that caught my attention:
“We’re the people saving the world from what might have been. The world will never know what could’ve happened … and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Because no one cares about the bomb that didn’t go off, only the one that did. But it’s the bomb that didn’t go off, the danger no one knew was real, that’s the bomb with the real power to change the world.”
Upon hearing this, I couldn’t help but think of how limited our current concept of “prevention over cure” is. Awards, accolades and recognition is only reserved for those strategies — and their devisers — which intervene during times of need to set everything right but not for those which prevent the need for such intervention. Have you ever heard of the policymaker whose policies averted a crisis before it began? Have you ever heard of the general who chose not to fight a war after anticipating its crippling costs, even if victorious? What about the urban coastal-city planner who decided to build raised dams and walls to prevent flooding?
This is by design: the most important preventive strategies and the people making them go unnoticed exactly because these strategies are designed to avert issues before they arise. These “invisible heroes” will sadly be forever bereft of the acclaim they deserve because the public won’t ever know about “the bomb that didn’t go off.” No awards are given based on what didn’t happen.
Should this mean that preventive strategies matter less because they rack in less acclaim? Not at all. After all, we have been living through a pandemic for the last 18 months or so. An early, effective and global preventive strategy could have prevented a lot of economic and human loss. Perhaps the policymakers behind those strategies would have never been celebrated as much as the creators of the vaccine — an intervention-based strategy — but they still would have saved humanity from a lot of trouble.
On the whole, preventive strategies are better than intervention-based strategies. This is because preventive strategies root out any possible exposures to risk in the first place. They tackle the heart of the problem, eliminating the threat before it ever manifests. They avoid the serious and sometimes permanent consequences of exposure to risk. The COVID-19 pandemic is evidence of this. Many deaths, economic losses and other knock-on effects of the pandemic such as “long COVID-19” sickness could have been avoided had prevention been the key strategy employed.
Unfortunately, intervention gets all the hype. That is, at least in part, because it is so easy to plaster all over social media what you ‘did’ rather than what you ‘did not do’ (prevention). Applying the prevention framework does not get the same spotlight.
As Yale students, we often fall into this allure of the ‘intervention spotlight,’ partly because we’re constantly told we’re special by virtue of our talents, accomplishments and the school we attend. I fear that this subconsciously primes us to live up to the ‘special’ tag. That, in turn, could result in us ignoring threats because they may later become opportunities to receive attention if battled against effectively.
I hope as Yalies we are able to realize the true power of preventive measures and their implementation, regardless of what external forces attract us to other paths. Let us find solace in the fact that we always made the right preventive decision, which was the one needed at the time and not the one we ‘wanted’ to make for our own benefit.
Sun Tzu writes aptly, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
Sayyed Haider Hassan is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.