Corona is not a Black Swan Event

Bank scenarios from 2005

There is a narrative slowly emerging that Corona (Covid-19) is a true Black swan event. For example, according to Fred Cleary, a portfolio manager at Pegasus Capital, quoted in the FT’s excellent Long View Column, “Covid-19 is a black swan”. I could be wrong, but from recollection of reading the book, a Black Swan event is something that people cannot possibly imagine and therefore cannot possibly predict.

9/11 was a Black Swan event. Corona virus is not. In scenario-speak it is a wild card event that breaks all scenarios, but this is most definately not something that has not been foreseen. I worked with an Australian bank back in 2005 and a pandemic was on the table so to speak. It was one of the main topics of a UK government risk workshop in 2015 (by main topic I mean it was one of the events considered most probable (when not if as they say), it featured in some strategic trends work with the UK Ministry of Defence too (again, as a strategic shock), in some library scenarios, some work for KPMG and finally some disruption cards created with Imperial College.

The problem, of course, is not predicting, forecasting or foreseeing, but in assigning probability to such events or ideas. If the probability is widely considered to be low it will be largely ignored. It also touches on not what, but whom, in the sense of who gets listened to, why and when. BTW, is this is all a bit doom and gloom, my view is that the current pandemic is quite mild in terms of mortality. This too will pass, although next time we may not be so lucky.

From the Bookends Scenarios (PLNSW) 2010
KPMG cards circa 2012
Imperial Disruption cards 2018 – note linkages between cards

No touching

Is this the future?

OK, two scenarios in light of Coronavirus and the current outbreak of anxiety.

Scenario one: Social distancing becomes the norm. People avoid people.
People don’t trust people. People trust machines and prefer their company. A
society-wide deletion of the human interface (currently to be seen emerging in
banks and supermarkets across the UK and elsewhere). People work from home,
consume at home and essentially keep their mental front doors closed to things
they don’t like. Contact with nature is lost, so too is curiosity about other
people. The triumph of the digitally empowered individual.

Scenario two: Self isolation turns out to be a blessing disguised in a face
mask. People re-discover the joys of solitude. The cult of productivity and
competitive busyness is called into question. People find joy in simple things.                People slowly realise they need other people. People question what makes them truly happy and it turns out the answer is other people and especially helping strangers. There is an outbreak of empathy and kindness and a societal shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’. Civic responsibility and societal good trumps individual rights and freedoms.


Scenarios for the impact of pandemics

A scenario matrix from my friend Nick Turner at Stratforma. His explanation below.

The framework is built on the axes of two critical uncertainties:

  1. The nature of global coordination; “slow and inadequate” vs. “fast and efficient”
  2. The nature of public response; “panicked” vs. “disciplined”

When placed in a 2×2 matrix, four scenarios unfold:

“Déjà Flu”a world where despite national governments and multi national agencies responding in a responsible and coordinated fashion, feed “too much” information, the public over-react, resulting in irrational consumption and even xenophobic outrage.

“Keep Calm & Carry On”: a world where the virus spreads but effective quarantining and treatment contain the epidemic and the public display unexpected resilience, as the media behave in a more retrained way.

“Plus ça Change”: a world of disparity in response across the globe between developed and developing economies, the population of latter, despite experiencing high mortality rates, shrug off as just another one life’s challenges to be faced.

“Me First”: a world of delay, opacity, incompetence and unpreparedness, leading to public panic, overreaction and selfishness, the after effects of which linger for years.

More on this in Nick’s post here.