January 2020. The number of news article mentioning coronavirus exploded and anxious voices whispered about a global pandemic.
Whisper? To me, it was only a whisper. I tend to learn about the world through non-fiction books, conferences, and academic research rather than news and social media, so I did not see the crisis coming. But as whispers became alarms, my bubble of blissful ignorance popped.
On the 5th of March, I heard about Covid-19 for the first time in a Science Communication class. People present at the time seemed to treat the subject relatively lightly, so I went home without thinking about it too much. But a couple of days later, I talked to my parents who live in France and they were worried. French news bombarded them with images of Italian hospitals unable to cope with incoming flows of infected people, dead bodies lined up in the morgue, and interviews of panicking citizens.
On the 11th of March, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be a global pandemic. On the 23rd of March, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country had closed its borders and would enter a four-week lockdown within 48 hours. Faster and faster, things were changing. I felt lost. My imagination was running wild, from total-annihilation scenarios to thinking that the whole thing was maybe blown out of proportion. But then I remembered what I know about exponential growth, the type of growth viruses are subject to.
I remembered how exponentially growing processes tend to surprise us. I have been looking at them for a long time, but in another domain; that of environmental degradation. Social scientists call it the Great Acceleration: population, energy consumption, pollution, waste, world debt, greenhouse gases emissions, etc. Faster and faster, everything we do accelerates and drains our environment from its ability to recover. But the real bad news about exponential growth is that once we identify a problem, it is already a big problem. Fast-growing things are deceiving us.
To illustrate exponential growth, the following example is often used.
Imagine a single bacterium in a bottle at 11 am. It divides every minute and the bottle is full at 12 pm. The bottle is half full at 11.59 am. At what time is it 3% full?
The answer is 11.55 am! This means that something growing exponentially is doing so slowly. Very slowly. For quite a while. Then, boom! It explodes before you had time to see it coming and if we draw the curve, it looks like this:
Once I remembered how exponential stuff work, I welcomed our prime minister’s decision to act fast and strong, but I also worried about people who live in places that are not as easy to isolate as an island at the bottom of the world. Thankfully, good science communication happened. It explained the concept of flattening the curve: making that red curve rise more gently so we can manage with the resources we have. All around the world, people accepted drastic measures with little resistance.
I kept looking at contamination curves for New Zealand and countries around the world. Containment measures, although late in many places, eventually worked. Some curves flattened, reached a peak, and went back down. However, concerns remain high where large populations with little financial resources and poor health care find themselves defenceless, or in places where the need to resume economic activities overshadowed the fear of a secondary wave of contamination.
But things that surprise us because they grow fast should not be mistaken for things that surprise us because we don’t know they exist. Let me explain the concept of Black swans that you may have heard journalists mention or seen in headlines during the pandemics.
The Black Swan is the title of a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that describes how the human mind perceives extreme and world-changing events. To understand what a Black Swan is, Taleb uses the following story.
You are a turkey and since you were born, a farmer has come to feed you every day. For 1,000 days, you get food every day. But one day at the end of November, the farmer comes and cuts your head off. For you, this event is a Black Swan. As the turkey, if you had looked back at your history, you would never – ever – have predicted this event. With The Black Swan, Taleb warns us against the false sense of security we may get from misinterpreting the past.
Covid-19 is NOT a Black Swan, pandemics are common in human history. We got surprised by the pandemic because exponentially growing things grow very fast very suddenly, and not because the event was unexpected. When we mistake the cause of surprise and call Covid-19 a Black Swan, we miss two opportunities. First, we miss the opportunity to examine the past so we can prepare for the future. Second, we miss the opportunity to discuss the future while knowing that it is likely to produce events we have never seen before. Here, I think about climate change.