‘I keep getting asked for a list of the next four black swans’ Nicolas Taleb said recently. Taleb wrote The Black Swan in 2007 and the people who ask this question are showing that they don’t understand his observations. The book wasn’t always easy but it was compelling. [Cliff’s Notes might help if you’re short of time.]
After news of the disease from China, Taleb was co-author together with Joseph Norman and Yaneer Bar-Yam of a note warning of the public health dangers from Covid-19. Published in January 2020, the concluding paragraph warned of the coming political quandary:
‘It will cost something to reduce mobility in the short term, but to fail do so will eventually cost everything—if not from this event, then one in the future. Outbreaks are inevitable, but an appropriately precautionary response can mitigate systemic risk to the globe at large. But policy- and decision-makers must act swiftly and avoid the fallacy that to have an appropriate respect for uncertainty in the face of possible irreversible catastrophe amounts to ‘paranoia,’ or the converse a belief that nothing can be done.’
Yaneer Bar-Yam (President of New England Complex Systems Institute) has been publishing warnings on pandemic for over twenty years. In that foregoing quote, note the concern for the possibility of serial pandemics. This concern is called a ‘ruin problem’ in the introduction to the note:
‘While there is a very high probability for humanity surviving a single such event, over time, there is eventually zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events.’
And there was the warning from journalist Laurie Garrett. She wrote The Coming Plague in 1994. Here’s an (in)famous policy she mentions:
‘In 1982 President Ronald Reagan called for a war on drugs: by 1990 more men were in federal prisons on drug charges alone than had comprised the entire 1980 federal prison population for all crimes combined.’
I think this quote illustrates three points. First, given political will, actions can be implemented quickly and at huge scale. Second, populist or knee-jerks policies can have unintended consequences. And third, my sceptical self wonders if some mandarin advised that preventative jailing would cost less than remedial health care?
As Taleb says, Covid-19 or pandemic is not a black swan event. It was foretold though, I’d suggest, few governments chose to prepare for it. The UK was an exception and did have a national plan to mitigate though not suppress a flu type pandemic. Unfortunately, successive conservative governments ignored their own National Risk Register and re-focussed on terror threats (without spies).
The consequences of the major disruption, pandemic or otherwise, aren’t unprecedented. There have been many wars and myriad pestilences. Global leaders involved in their execution and suppression are poor at preparing for recovery from them.
And now, knee-jerks are happening all over the globe as frustration leads to independent attempts at appeasement by restoration of past orders to some level that will quell public irritation. There will be many cases of one unwittingly exposing many.
The public generally doesn’t understand what’s going on. For example, today Mexico surpassed the UK in Covid-19 fatalities. I’m not intending to pick on the UK but this is how the news media mentioned Mexico’s milestone. Why are these counts expressed as numbers rather than proportions? Mexico is twice the size of the UK and approximately half the UK in the economic ranking tables. That suggests the UK mortality rate is either twice as bad or perhaps four times worse than Mexico. But this isn’t all we need to consider.
An interesting way I’ve seen to represent the death toll is by excess mortality per 100,000 of population. The Economist had some intriguing charts a few weeks ago. Mexico City sadly leads the world in mortalities that exceed what is historically normal for the measured time-span. Britain is in 5th place and the USA in 14th. We can guess that Mexico isn’t testing enough to confirm the deaths due to Covid. I’m unsure why the UK is 5th. The USA may be better than you’d have thought (but may be slower at processing death certificates).
A quote from The Black Swan that stayed with me is that ‘measures of uncertainty that are based on the bell curve simply disregarded the possibility, and the impact, of sharp jumps or discontinuities’ … ‘although unpredictable large deviations are rare, they cannot be dismissed as outliers because, cumulatively, their impact is so dramatic.’
I worry that there might be an iatrogenic consequence in our attempt to ‘vaccinate’ or otherwise treat coronaviruses. Perhaps I’m alert to this worry because of sepsis that I had during which I was dosed serially with seven different antibiotics to avoid building resistance. This wasn’t to protect my immunity. No, a microbiologist told me they were cycling through the drugs to mitigate against the bacteria in the hospital becoming drug resistant.
Or what about mutations of Covid-19? Could two or more variants become parallel pandemics? Could multiple mutations become the ‘ruin’ of mankind?