COVID-19: The Black Swan We Saw Coming
An unforeseen, unimaginable crisis of severe consequence is a black swan event. A global pandemic was both foreseen and completely imaginable. COVID-19 is categorically not a black swan event. The consequences of our own sustained inaction do not magically turn this virus into one. The COVID-19 outbreak was no surprise. A global pandemic is a well known problem that we chose to ignore.
People love to throw around terms like Black Swan. Mark Cuban said on CNBC “this is the ultimate definition of a black swan event, and whatever we suppose is just a guess.” The theory is that if you have only seen white swans for your entire life, a white swan is the only thing you can imagine. When you see a black swan for the first time, it is something that you never believed or imagined to be possible. According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s theory, a black swan event needs to be:
- Beyond the realm of expectation
- Impacts are not computable using any existing methods
- Understandable only in hindsight because biases from current experiences blind us to the possibility of it
We can’t imagine it, we can’t quantify it, and our own beliefs prevent us from even acknowledging it exists. Erroneously calling COVID-19 a Black Swan is significant because it deflects blame. Government officials can abdicate all responsibility, claiming they’re doing the best they can in totally unpredictable circumstances.
Climb in a time machine and travel back to 2004 with me. Terrorism is fresh in our minds. Before 9/11, our government couldn’t connect the dots to thwart the attack, different agencies couldn’t communicate, and first responders didn’t have the equipment they needed. Not predicting the 9/11 attack was called a “failure of imagination”. The brand new Department of Homeland Security was tasked with imagining, predicting, and preparing for all possible threats before the next crisis befell the United States.
In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA created a publicly available list of “National Planning Scenarios” as the playbook for designing emergency plans and exercises to prevent another catastrophic “failure of imagination”. These planning scenarios are not classified reports for a select group of federal officials, they are intended to be shared with everyone involved with emergency management. These scenarios survey different threats (e.g., major hurricane, major earthquake, terrorist bombing, chemical attack) to prepare for at community, state, and federal levels. The details of the planning scenarios should be the basis for making decisions about purchasing equipment (like masks and ventilators) or evaluating how many ambulances and hospital beds a city needs during a major emergency. If COVID-19 was a black swan event beyond the realm of expectation, we would not have written a national planning scenario 16 years ago that specially addressed a Pandemic Influenza.
- 87,000 fatalities and 300,000 hospitalizations
- Need for shelter-in-place or quarantine instructions
- Occurs across the entire country and spreads rapidly
- Mechanical ventilators will be necessary and in short supply
- Severe disruptions due to worker illness
- Health care systems will be severely stressed, if not overwhelmed
It’s almost frightening how starkly accurate these predictions are. The exact details of what would and is happening during an influenza pandemic were spelled out and shared with emergency managers and public officials across the country.
The most egregious thing is that we knew about the absolute worst case scenarios down to exacting details, and nobody did a thing about it. It’s almost as if writing threats down magically absolved FEMA from actually doing anything about them. A 2010 public report by the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General shows that 6 years after the Pandemic Flu scenario was created, no work had been done by the federal government to plan a response to it. Recommendation #2 from the inspector directs DHS to “pursue planning efforts” on the pandemic influenza scenario (among others). The report further recommends that DHS needed to expand access to this information to include state, tribal, and local governments as well as the private sector. A subsequent report in 2014 found that the government was continuing to put planning on the backburner, and hadn’t purchased nearly enough protective equipment.
It’s pretty amazing that the people writing the National Planning Scenarios had a crystal ball and got the impacts of the pandemic flu exactly right. What’s unfortunate is that their incredible foresight didn’t lead to meaningful action. The projected impacts were never properly communicated to state and local officials. Their imagination did not fail us, our leaders did.
NPR’s headline story today is “FEMA Predicted the Pandemic in July 2019”. The sad truth is FEMA predicted this 15 years before that and wrote 15 more annual reports about not being ready for it. We don’t need another 9/11 Commission to start studying COVID, we know exactly what went wrong. The tragedy of COVID-19 is that we saw it coming, and decided to ignore it. Hospitals had a chance to buy enough ventilators. Every nurse and EMT could have a box full of N95 masks. Cities could’ve written a plan for creating temporary ICU beds. Government officials wouldn’t need to stand-up at press conferences to explain why they never imagined this happening. We can’t stop disasters from happening but we can plan for them. The President could be saying, we saw this coming, we planned for this, and we are ready to do everything possible to stop it. Claiming instead that COVID-19 is a black swan event is an excuse to shirk responsibility. Our government has very smart people who predicted this problem with incredible accuracy, it’s time for our leaders to heed their warnings.
David Riedman is Ph.D. student in Sociology at the University of Hawai’i and an expert in critical infrastructure protection, homeland security policy, and emergency management. He was a volunteer firefighter for 18 years and is a co-founder of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Advanced Thinking and Experimentation (HSx) Program at the Naval Postgraduate School.