Covid-19: White swan or black swan event?

Flip Buys says that with few exceptions govts across the world were caught woefully unprepared

Governments guilty of reckless negligence about the coronavirus

The corona pandemic and the measures that had to be put in place to combat it undoubtedly are causing the biggest human tragedy since World War II. The unprecedented economic consequences are expected to last much longer than the pandemic itself. The much-needed measures to curb the spread of the virus have further deepened and exacerbated the crisis.

The International Labour Organisation has calculated that global unemployment is going to double and that almost 200 million people may lose their jobs. This will affect, in one way or another, the lives and livelihoods of up to a billion dependants and other people.

However, the crisis is going to have an even more far-reaching effect owing to the chain reaction brought about by the lockdown affecting about 3 billion people worldwide. In South Africa it is expected that more than a million jobs may be lost, affecting the lives of at least 5 million people.

Millions of businesses all over the world are being hit hard by the crisis, with the concomitant ripple effect on people, tax revenue and the ability of states to provide essential services such as healthcare and education.

Furthermore, the education and training of hundreds of millions of young people are being harmed by the restrictions, and more than a billion people may be plunged into poverty and distress. The influential economic publication Bloomberg reports that the more than $8 trillion allocated by governments to combat the crisis is not going to be enough.

The crisis has not passed yet, but already it is accepted that the coronavirus is going to replace World War II as the most important point of reference in the modern era.

Black or white swan?

The question is whether this unprecedented human tragedy could have been prevented or at least drastically limited. Governments and the global system of authority contend that the pandemic has been totally unforeseen – the embodiment of what the statistician Nassim Taleb describes as a “black swan”.

In his sensational 2007 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable he described a black swan as a rare, highly unlikely and unpredictable “outlier” of an event that has a sudden and enormous impact. Taleb expressed a serious warning against the danger of a global pandemic: “I see a risk of a deadly virus that rapidly spreads across the entire planet as more people travel all over the world.”

It is tragic that more has been said than done about this and many other warnings. An irritated Taleb recently responded to calling the pandemic a black swan, describing the coronavirus as a predictable and preventable “white swan”. He says no government has offered any excuse for their lack of preparedness to the virus and its rapid spread. According to Taleb, governments were too stingy to spend preventive cents and now have to spend trillions.

Hazard lights flashing

It is inexplicable that the world has been caught so unprepared. After all, history shows that infectious diseases (apart from poverty) kill more people than anything else. Professor Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard T.H. Chan school of public health said a long time ago that pandemic diseases were posing disastrous global risks. He warned that there were now many more infectious diseases than ever before, that these diseases have increased fourfold over the past century and that annual outbreaks of diseases had more than tripled since 1980. Previously, global pandemics were separated by centuries, but in the twentieth century there were only decades between pandemics. Since the turn of the century, there has been some or other pandemic almost every year.

The most important reasons for this are that the world’s population has doubled since 1950 and that the world is increasingly becoming globalised, with about 1,4 billion international visitors per annum. This is a fifty-fold increase since 1950. This is why many medical experts have warned that preventive measures and proper preparations have to be made for dangerous pandemics. Only a few countries in Asia, who have had to face pandemics more regularly, or countries such as Taiwan, who did not trust Chinese reassurances, were prepared.


Why the world was caught so unawares remains inexplicable. The result was that medieval emergency plans such as locking down entire countries and cities had to be devised in an effort to fend off the crisis. Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) was unprepared: a week after an emergency was declared by China, the head of the WHO was still agreeing with the Chinese government that the virus could not be transmitted between people and that it was not an international health crisis.

Worst of all is that unsuspecting populations now have to bear the brunt of the incomprehensible and even reckless negligence of their authorities, through the loss of many people’s lives and the necessities of life of many more. It was the responsibility of governments to foresee the probability of a deadly global pandemic, to prevent it where possible and to plan to protect populations. The irony is that most government leaders are even being “rewarded” for their negligence with increased support from a grateful population – the heroes in the crisis for which they are co-responsible!

The World Economic Forum (WEF) poll on the top ten risks among global decision-makers also shows their blind spot for the hazards of international pandemics. This group of powerful people considered 6 out of 10 world risks as environment related, two as cyber offences, one as economic and one as political.

A worldwide pandemic was not even a blip on the WEF radar screens. They were more concerned about climate than about mankind’s life.

South Africa

In South Africa, the government was also caught unawares. Furthermore, they had managed the public healthcare system so terribly for more than a decade that it cannot deal with an increase in diseases. In addition, the country was downgraded to junk status just before the crisis as a result of the ANC government’s poor management of the country. Now the population have to look on as more than a million compatriots are losing their jobs and many more their necessities of life.

And it now appears that the government’s initial presumptions on the number of people that could be infected by the pandemic were misguided. It also is becoming clear that the extension of the hard lockdown measures is prolonging and aggravating the crisis, turning it into an economic disaster.

The former head of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), Prof. Shabir Madhi, estimates that the virus could cause about 25 000 deaths – more or less the same number of deaths caused every year by TB, diabetes and flu.

Prof Madhi says the initial isolation measures and lockdown were necessary in order to prepare hospitals, increase testing and curb the spread, but he is concerned that the unintended consequences of the lockdown and the resulting economic crisis could lead to other diseases and deaths.

While panic decisions at the beginning of the crisis were understandable, sufficient data now are available to work with facts and determine a well-considered policy. Lockdown of a longer duration also means a longer pandemic because people become infected more gradually. Therefore, a sharply focused longer-term strategy is required, based on the following pillars:

- Strict protection of vulnerable groups such as unhealthy old people in homes for the aged;

Compulsory self-isolation of people with health risks;

- Extensive testing and tracing of people with viruses;

- Opening up of the economy with provisions for healthy work;

- A prohibition on gatherings of large groups of people; and

- Phasing out of draconian lockdown measures that further aggravate the crisis.

The South African population will be suffering for a long time under the pandemic, the government’s unpreparedness for it and their poor management of the economy, the desperate condition of public healthcare, and the economic crisis, which has been exacerbated drastically by the draconian regulations of the long and indeterminate lockdown, and the unaffordable measures of the government to mitigate the consequences of the crisis.

The government is unable on their own to lead the country out of this crisis for which they are partly responsible. The state-resistant private sector and civil society will have to act to help the country out of this crisis.

Flip Buys is chairperson of the Solidarity movement.