The Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh never imagined in his wildest dreams that black swans could exist. He never saw or heard of one in Europe. In January 1697 he and his crew sailed up a river, later named Swan River, in Southwestern Australia to explore it. And much to their utter amazement they became the first Europeans to see black swans.
"Black swan" events are extremely rare and highly improbable events. They share three characteristics:
1) they are unpredictable
2) they have a massive impact
3) post the event, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random and more predictable.
Is the COVID-19 outbreak a black swan event?
Here are three reasons why it is not an unpredictable event.
First, there have been more than a dozen serious epidemics, many of them worldwide, in the last 100 years (see Box 5). The Spanish flu and smallpox killed 50 million people each. Eighteen million Indians died of Spanish flu. HIV killed 30 million people. The Asian flu and Hong Kong flu killed at least a million people each. But they have faded quickly from public memory.
A medical staff checks the temperature of a girl at the Oking Hospital in Kohima, Nagaland. Image credit: AP Photo/Yirmiyan Arthur
Second, a paper is written by four Chinese scientists titled, Bat Coronaviruses in China, published on 2 March 2019, specifically warned, "it is highly likely that future SARS- or MERS-like coronavirus outbreaks will originate from bats, and there is an increased probability that this will occur in China. Two bat origin CoVs caused large-scale epidemics in China over fourteen years, highlighting the risk of a future bat CoV outbreak in this nation. Therefore, the investigation of bat coronaviruses becomes an urgent issue for the detection of early warning signs, which in turn minimizes the impact of such future outbreaks in China." The Chinese government, which funded this study through its science academies, did not heed the warning it carried.
Third, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, speaking at the World Government Summit, Dubai on 12 February 2018, warned the world, "A devastating epidemic could start in any country at any time and kill millions of people because we are still not prepared. The world remains vulnerable." The world heard him but did not listen to him.
COVID-19 is not a black swan event. It is a "gray rhino" event, one that is a highly probable and with a potentially large impact. Gray rhino events can be seen in advance because of their size and the early warning they give. Yet, they are ignored. India has had many big gray rhino events in the past.
Recent Indian gray rhino events
India's record of handling gray rhino events is poor and leaves doubts about how it will handle the coronavirus outbreak. There have been occasions though when it has rolled up its sleeves and done a particularly good job like in the Machilipatnam cyclone or what Kerala is doing now to control COVID-19.
1984 Bhopal gas tragedy: Union Carbide made Sevin, a carbamate group pesticide, in its Bhopal plant. Soon after the plant went into production, Sevin lost market space to the next generation pesticides and the company slipped into losses. Consequently, safety and environmental management standards in the plant declined.
The immediate aftermath of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy
Between 1981-84, the plant had a series of accidents (see Box 6). This prompted journalist Raj Kumar Keshwani to write three articles lamenting on the plant's poor safety conditions, and warning Bhopal that it was on the brink of a disaster. A state government minister responded saying, "The Carbide plant is not some small pebble that can be picked up and put elsewhere."
Forty-two tonnes of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) leaked on the cold winter night of 2 December 1984, killing about 8,000 persons immediately. Another 17,000 died subsequently of chronic toxic effects.
1999 Ersama cyclone: Odisha is hit by a severe cyclone almost every year, and by a super cyclone once every few years. A super cyclone hit Ersama block in coastal Orissa on 29 October 1999. Three 10-metre high storm surges swept everything in their path for up to 20 km inland, killing about 50,000 persons.
The destruction caused by the 1999 Ersama cyclone
2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami: Indonesia is frequently rocked by earthquakes and the offshore ones sometimes generate tsunamis. On 26 December 2004, a 9.1 magnitude offshore earthquake near Sumatra, Indonesia generated tsunami waves that rose to 9 m before they hit coasts of 14 countries along the Indian Ocean rim, and wreaked enormous destruction. About 250,000 persons died, including 10,000 on the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh coasts.
The destruction caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami
Information failures increase lives lost
Information plays a critical role in minimizing the probability of a gray rhino event from becoming a disaster. Information throughputs have five stages"generation, transmission, interpretation, access, and use. An information failure at any of these stages increase the probability of a hazard hit converting into a disaster.
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami disaster in India was an information generation failure. India did not install seabed sensors in the Bay of Bengal to detect tsunami pressure waves. It was also an information transmission failure as the Indian government was informed about the tsunami soon after it hit the Andaman Islands (see information timeline), which lie close to Sumatra. It took another two hours before the tsunami hit India's east coast, which was adequate to evacuate fisherfolk inland. Failure to do that was a criminal act of negligence which cost India 10,000 lives.
Information timeline after tsunami wave was generated off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia
Quake strikes Sumatra. India Meteorological Department (IMD) knows about it by 6.40 am, but could not analyse data as its computer developed a snag,
Indian Air Force (IAF) Nicobar informs IAF Tambaram, who inform IAF Chief who alerts Defence Min
Waves lash Machilipatnam, Chennai, Cuddalore, on India's southeast coast.
Faxes sent to Secretaries of Department of Science & Technology, Home Ministry, Home Minister.
Tsunami waves strikes east coasts of India, Sri Lanka.
Cabinet Secretary calls Port Blair. Secretary of Ocean Development briefs him.
Crisis Manage-ment Group meets.
Indian Navy ships dispatched to Andaman Islands.
The IMD computer being down and not available to analyse the incoming data also made this event an information interpretation failure.
The Bhopal gas tragedy was an information access failure. People in Bhopal were sleeping when a highly toxic MIC gas cloud formed at the Carbide plant and drifted slowly downwind towards JP Nagar, Chola Khenchi slums and areas further south. Being heavier than air, the gas cloud hugged the ground, and remained concentrated as the prevailing low wind speed dispersed it very slowly. People woke up and ran to save themselves. But they ran downwind and remained in the gas cloud, inhaling a large amount of toxic MIC gas.
Bhopal site map
Had they known that they should move perpendicular to the wind direction, the quickest way to get out of a gas cloud, and cover their nose and mouths with a wet cloth as MIC is soluble in water, many thousands of lives may have been saved, and injury would have been less. Not a single Carbide worker died on the as they were aware that running upwind and away from the gas cloud was the best way to save themselves.
Movement of the toxic gas cloud
The Ersama cyclone disaster was an information use failure. The National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) provided the Odisha government with satellite pictures of the cyclone's path for 3 days prior to the cyclone making landfall. Yet, the Odisha government did not use this information. If the coastal population had been evacuated, most of the 50,000 people who lost their lives would have lived.
There are other examples of hazard strike events that became disasters due to information failures. One of them is the 7.5 magnitude (on the Richter scale) Bhuj earthquake that occurred on 26 January 2001. Hundreds of buildings collapsed in several cities in Gujarat killing about 25,000 people and causing a financial loss of Rs 25,000-50,000 crores.
NRSA satellite pictures showing the cyclone's progress for 3 days before landfall
Had the buildings been built to Bureau of Indian Standards (ISI) codes for earthquake resistant structures, far fewer people would have died. BIS codes were available for engineered and non-engineered buildings but were not used, making this event an information use failure.
Bhuj is in a Zone 5 (most earthquake prone) seismic region, making it a high-risk area. Damage to Gujarat Housing Board colonies built to ISI standards, was minimal, but Shikhar Towers, Himgiri Apartments, and 170 other buildings in Ahmadabad crashed as they were not built to ISI standards.
Bhuj in maximum risk seismic zone
In a quake of similar magnitude that shook Seattle soon after the Bhuj quake happened, only 3 persons died as structures in that city conformed to building standards for earthquakes.
The author is an environmental engineer with specialization in risk analysis