The COVID-19 outbreak was neither unpredictable nor unforeseen, yet it blind-sided policymakers when it emerged, leading to unprecedented global restrictions on human activity and almost certainly triggering the first global economic contraction since WWII. This paper considers the key factors in the eruption of the crisis, as well as the lessons that should be learned from it. The paper begins with an outline of COVID-19’s spread, highlighting six key drivers that have determined its severity: the exponential pace of transmission, global interconnectedness, health-sector capacity, wider state capacity, the economic impact of suppression measures, and fragilities caused by the 2008 financial crisis. The paper then proceeds by considering the steps that have been taken in response to five key challenges, corresponding to elements of the IRGC risk governance framework: technical assessment, risk perception, evaluation, management and communication. While acknowledging that only tentative conclusions can be drawn at this early stage, the paper ends with a series of ten recommendations designed to increase preparedness for future crises.