COVID-19: A white swan, not a black swan

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3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 -- also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19 -- virus particle. Image: NIAID/Flickr

The "black swan" effect identifies an improbable occurrence that mocks calculations of what can be normally expected to happen. A black swan spotted in 19th-century Western Australia threw out the entrenched idea that all swans were white. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a remarkable book, The Black Swan (2007), about the extreme impact of the highly improbable, and the need to be skeptical about confident predictions that fail to account for the real uncertainty that governs the future.

In a recent op-ed in The Guardian, Taleb (with co-author Yaneer Bar-Yam) argues the U.K. messed up when it decided to combat COVID-19 with models that did not make provision for errors, and evidence based policy … when there was insufficient evidence.

Though it has taken the world by surprise, the COVID-19 pandemic is a white swan event. It was predictable that a contagious disease without a standard treatment would strike the planet -- it is a periodic occurrence. 

Think of examples just in this century. Dating from the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003, outbreaks have occurred of avian influenza (bird flu), swine influenza. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Ebola, then in 2015-2016, Zika, a virus spread by mosquitoes. 

The Spanish flu outbreak early in the 20th century was more deadly than the First World War. The AIDS virus took years to bring under control, and devastated Africa and communities around the world.

It is certain that there will be another pandemic. There is no good reason to ignore that it will occur, and every reason to prepare for it. 

What is needed is to throw out the conventional thinking that dominates public policy, particularly in the wealthy G7 nations led by the U.S., that are suffering from COVID-19 illness and deaths.

Global co-operation does not arise from international trade deals that generate monopoly profits for corporations through enshrining intellectual property rights. Confronting a pandemic requires the ability to share knowledge about how to cure the virus, and eventually make vaccines and drugs for treatment widely available at the lowest possible cost, without price gouging through patent protection. 

Corporate globalization based on exporting well paying manufacturing jobs to low-wage areas has left governments in the global North managing the bad outcomes that accompany unemployment; meanwhile, Third World governments struggle with the social distress created by sweat-shop work environments.

Now governments in both the global North and South need to confront the fallout from the freezing of the world economy, as non-essential businesses, schools, theatres, sports and arts events shut down. 

The social distancing adopted to halt the spread of the coronavirus creates an immediate need for ready income for workers and their families who find themselves laid off and out of work, or sick; or caring for children not in school or sick family. 

Governments need to ensure households can meet daily needs through expansion of guaranteed incomes, unemployment insurance and pensions.

G7-led government de-regulation of business has produced share buybacks rather than productive investment, excessive executive remuneration and privatization trickery involving bankers and hedge funds. 

Now governments need to step up and prioritize health, housing, education and welfare spending, and invest in publicly owned infrastructure.

At the time of the 2008 financial crisis, world central banks flooded financial markets with liquidity, but governments took few serious steps to re-structure a financial sector serving itself rather than national goals.

Once again, world central banks are buying securities to forestall corporate bankruptcies. This time banks need to be brought under democratic supervision. Taking public ownership positions in return for buying up corporate debt is an option to be exercised in industries such as airlines. 

As current G7 president, the U.S.'s idea for dealing with the pandemic was to blame China. Not surprisingly, American leadership was rejected by other foreign ministers in a G7 teleconference last week.

In an uncertain world, countries need a robust response to an uncertain future. 

The out-of-control military spending of the U.S. and other G7 nations needs to be redirected to assure financial security, vital health and educational infrastructure, and a transition out of a fossil-fuel economy across the world. 

Environmental activists, trade unionists, feminists and religious leaders have been pointing out for decades that at the planetary level, nations need to come together for common security. 

Protecting citizens from climate change, famine, drought, forest fires and pandemics requires specific practices, investments and major policy shifts.

The main threats to human well-being are not military attacks that threaten national security: they emerge from the interplay of industrial society and nature; and responding effectively requires a new approach to global co-operation.

Thoughtful international planning and informed national action are both needed to ensure public health is protected in inevitable future pandemics.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Image: NIAID/Flickr

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