Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Why Were We Not Prepared?

Originally published in the Globe and Mail April 12, 2020

In 2003, a novel coronavirus emerged from Asia, spread to two dozen countries, sickened about 8,000 people and killed 774. But SARS was stopped. That close call was enough to convince a subcommittee of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which runs Wimbledon, that pandemic was a risk worth preparing for: It added a clause covering disruption by reason of pandemic to its annual insurance policy.

Like all such events in the near future, Wimbledon has been cancelled. Unlike so many others, Wimbledon will be fine because it is insured.

In theory, being prepared for low-probability, high-consequence events such as a pandemic should not be difficult. Identify threats. Consider how to mitigate. Weigh costs of mitigation against probability and consequence, factoring in available resources and competing demands. Prepare.

If a subcommittee of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club can do it, surely corporations and governments can, too.

But as the present crisis demonstrated on a global scale, and a Globe and Mail story revealed in the Canadian context, corporations and governments did a miserable job of preparing this time. Sadly, that is the norm. Folly is routine. It is the wisdom of Wimbledon that is the aberration.

Why is that? The problem isn’t that the threats cannot be foreseen.

In the case of the present pandemic, epidemiologists have been shouting about the threat for decades. SARS was a warning as loud as an air-raid siren. So were H1N1, MERS and Ebola. There was a Hollywood movie, a Time cover and a Bill Gates TED talk. As The Globe revealed, a 2006 Canadian federal government report laid out a scenario that looks eerily like what we’re experiencing now.

Anybody who cared to look saw this coming from miles away.

But they only saw the threat vaguely. No one could say precisely what form it would take, where it would emerge or when. We knew only there was a small probability, each year, that a virus with the potential to go pandemic and do terrible harm would appear.

That was a problem. People don’t think naturally in terms of probabilities. “It will happen” or “it won’t” is our default mode. Tell people there is a 99-per-cent chance something will occur and most will treat it as a sure thing. Tell them there is a 1-per-cent chance and they will think it impossible.

For the most part, this tendency does not get us in trouble because, by definition, low probability events seldom happen, so those who ignore them do not suffer. In fact, if you don’t buy insurance or stockpile supplies or build redundancy into your supply chain, you save money. It pays to ignore low-probability threats.

But if there is a 1-per-cent chance of something happening this year, and next, and every year thereafter, the highly improbable is inevitable. It is also inevitable that those who don’t prepare will regret it.

Of course, after the highly improbable disaster happens, everything changes. People rush to prepare, damn the cost.

At least for a while. As time passes, memories fade. The feeling of threat vanishes like a ghost at sunrise. Eventually, it seems only reasonable to let insurance lapse, stockpiles expire and supply chains thin.

That’s the psychology. Psychology feeds popular perception. Popular perception fuels politics.

And politics – “who gets what, when, how,” in Harold Lasswell’s classic definition – decides what actually gets done.

In the mid-1990s, reports of terrorists planning to hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings led American aviation safety experts to recommend that cockpit doors be reinforced and kept closed and locked in flight. The change wasn’t made. Airlines didn’t want to do it (reinforced doors are heavier so planes with them would burn a little more fuel) and politicians who got campaign donations from the airlines agreed.

Then 9/11 happened, the change was implemented in October, 2001, and then-president George W. Bush congratulated the airlines for moving so quickly. President, prime minister or CEO, it makes no difference. This is how politics usually prepares.

There are many recurring low-probability, high-consequence threats we are not prepared for. (Google “catastrophic geomagnetic storm” if you need something to keep you awake at night.) Only leadership willing to defy politics and support rational analysis and risk mitigation – not once or twice, but continuously, over a period of many years – can change that.

Whether governments and corporations will rise to the august standards of a subcommittee of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club remains to be seen.