The COVID-19 pandemic has led economists to weigh up the ‘dollar value’ of human lives against the effect of lockdown measures on gross domestic product — in order to justify lifting them. Given the burgeoning medical crisis, we should instead be questioning the wisdom of persisting with an economic model that cannot survive a pause of even a few months.

The pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink the rationality of our socio-economic model and to replace it with a more resilient one. A system that relies on complex webs of growing debt, and that ultimately endorses the ever-increasing use of finite physical resources, is by definition unsustainable, even without pandemics. We also need to build in the near-certain emergence of other lethal pathogens in the future (see, for example, K. E. Jones et al. Nature 451, 990–993; 2008).

Scientists and scientific organizations have a responsibility to clearly communicate these long-term considerations to policymakers if such goals are to be realized.