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Coronavirus: a gray rhino rather than a black swan

Contrary to popular belief, the outbreak of the pandemic was predictable. East Asia was prepared better because it did not neglect the warnings of scientists. In the West, this was prevented by the gap between the world of power and the world of knowledge


Western leaders have adopted an opinion that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was unforeseeable. “The current crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic surprised everyone in equal measure,” Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki said at the end of March. “The problem was unforeseeable… it came out of nowhere,” President Donald Trump claimed at the beginning of the previous month. Similar statements could be heard from many other Western politicians, CEOs of corporations and banks. But this is not true.

The outbreak of a pandemic has been predicted numerous times for many years. Just last year a panel of experts of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board predicted it in its report, where it forecast tens of millions of deaths and a 5% drop of the global GDP. Last autumn, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies simulated the progress of a pandemic for a coronavirus similar to the SARS-CoV-2 we are dealing with right now. Foreign Policy, a globally influential magazine, predicted the pandemic both in September 2019 and before. A group of Australian scientists not only foresaw it but also recommended, in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, specific preparatory measures in 2015. The billionaire and founder of Microsoft Bill Gates also warned us against such a scenario. The pandemic has been popularly referred to as a “black swan” (I was also under that wrong impression at first, for which I would like to apologise to the readers of NK), a term coined by Nassim Taleb to denote startling events of great significance; curiously enough, he also foresaw a new pandemic in his 2007 book of the same title. The same was forecast in 2005 by an American epidemiologist Prof. Michael Osterholm. “The belief that the threat of contagious diseases, and even a pandemic, is real was common also in the Polish medical environment” – dr Maria Libura, a health expert of Nowa Konfederacja.

So, American policy analyst Michele Wucker seems to be right to say that we are dealing with a gray rhino rather than a black swan. Unlike the latter, the former is a common and well-known threat. A large beast which we are aware that is running loose nearby and can attack us; we just do not know when.

American policy analyst Michele Wucker seems to be right to say that we are dealing with a gray rhino rather than a black swan

Not everyone was equally reckless when it came to the current threat. East Asia, the first victim of the gray rhino in the form of the latest coronavirus, is doing much better. The most geopolitically significant factor in this context is the difference between the West and China but it is hard to include the latter in the analysis due to the dubious credibility of the data it provides. But it may be a good idea to juxtapose the almost 200 million people from non-Chinese East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore) with the similarly populated top three countries of the European Union: Germany, France and Italy. Just a month ago, the number of deaths from COVID-19 was lower 24 times over there than here. Today, the disproportion grew to about 1:100, all despite the fact that the threat came here later. The United States, another centre of the pandemic, are quickly catching up with the “leaders.” Perhaps certain factors that are yet to be explored play a part in this, for instance genetic factors, but it can be clearly seen that there is a drastic difference in the approach to the danger. Non-Chinese East Asian countries were much better prepared organisationally, technologically and socially, they did not disregard the threat and they responded quickly, in a way that was less destructive for their economies and less bothersome for the inhabitants. Unlike the West, whose leaders ostentatiously undermined the rhino charging on them only to shut down their countries in panic. Today, they are at the mercy of East Asia, China included, when it comes to the supply of strategic goods, such as masks, gloves, respirators.

The fact that Western politics and business leaders see the gray rhino as a black swan means not only that they refuse to tell us the truth about a fundamental matter. And this is not Plato’s noble lie, i.e. one told for greater good, but a despicable lie, told to cover up for their own incompetence. But it has a bigger meaning. Just like the ignored warnings about the approaching financial crisis in 2008, the lie prompts a few important questions.

Is there a gap between the world of power (also financial power) and the world of knowledge? We finance both worlds from our taxes; perhaps we pay too little or we demand to little, or both, if the authorities are unable to take advantage of the knowledge we have within reach? How is it possible that in an era where we are flooded with plans and forecasts every step of the way, some still live high lives off worthless GDP growth (or drop) prophecies in the current extremely uncertain situation, continuously engaging public interest, while others are unable to get through with forecasts regarding fundamental, existential even, threats? Do we see charlatans as wisemen and the other way round? Do we live in a collective illusion of a future planned based on the experience of today, that is relying on one of the most basic analytical mistakes? Can the consequences of the crash with the rhino still be reversed? Who will be held accountable if they are much worse than they should be?

There is no excuse for governments and corporations for disregarding the threats of the pandemic, Nassim Taleb said recently. The rhino is one thing but pushing the nations towards a frontal clash with it is something that could have been averted and was avoided by some. Remember about this as you listen to further assurances about the unpredictability of the current crisis and further searches for a scapegoat.

Translation financed by the National Freedom Institute – Centre for Civil Society Development from the Civil Society Organisations Development Programme for 2018-2030

the chairman and founder of the "Nowa Konfederacja" Thinkzine, a political scientist and publicist. His first professional experience was in "Polskie Radio" and "Rzeczpospolita". He was also the vice-leader of Fronda.pl portal and the editor of the quarterly "Fronda". Between 2010 and 2013 he founded and managed the quarterly "Rzeczy Wspólne". For the period 2015 to 2017 he co-created the think thank Centrum Analiz Klubu Jagiellońskiego. He was publishing i.a. in "Gazeta Polska", "Dziennik Gazeta Prawna", "Gość Niedzielny", "Polska The Times", "Arcana", "Super Express" and "Znak"


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