The importance of preparing for unknown risks


By Ricardo Evangelista


The coronavirus crisis demonstrated that countries with preparations in place to deal with a pandemic, such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan - despite having been among the first to suffer the impact of the virus - experienced lower numbers of cases and fatalities than others without any plan for such events. For these, the cost of unreadiness has been staggering, both in human and economic terms.

But we mustn’t judge too harshly the countries that didn’t have a contingency plan; they hadn’t faced a similar scenario since the 1919 flu pandemic. Conversely, in 2003, there was an outbreak of an earlier coronavirus. SARS also started in China, and then spread, but, except for a small outbreak in Canada, it remained a South-East Asian problem. Perhaps for this reason, countries in that region have dealt with COVID-19 more efficiently; they had prepared, because within living memory a similar situation had occurred.

Another great example of the importance of planning and preparing for unforeseeable events is the early tsunami warning system, which covers the entire Pacific rim. It was installed in the aftermath of the 2004 Christmas Day tsunami, that killed hundreds of thousands and caused billions of dollars of damage. Since its deployment, the system has been activated several times, saving countless lives by raising an early alarm and providing enough time for coastal populations to be evacuated.

It seems that we only prepare for high-impact events when others, of a similar type, have occurred within living memory. This could be dangerous; if we look far enough into the past, we’ll see that our planet’s history is fertile in low probability/high risk events, such as asteroid impacts, super volcanoes or massive solar flares; all of these could realistically happen again tomorrow – unlikely, but possible. To this list we can also add man-made risks, like climate change, nuclear war or even badly intentioned artificial intelligence.

The philosopher Toby Ord recently published a book called “The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity”. In his book Ord estimates, perhaps harshly, at one in six the probability of human extinction during this century, and he argues that it is a moral imperative for humanity to plan and prepare for the worst, protect the present but also the future. If humanity was to become extinct or sent back to the Stone Age by an extreme event, the damage wouldn’t be limited to the existing 7.8 billion but would include the trillions of future humans never to come into existence. This may sound farfetched but take a moment to reflect on it.

Planning and preparing for low probability but high impact events will surely be seen by many as unnecessary and expensive, hard to justify. Political will and international cooperation would be needed. Unfortunately, in the current climate, world leading countries such as the US are pulling out of international organisations, like the WHO. It’s difficult to imagine the nations of the earth coming together to debate and plan such strategies. Let’s hope we don’t one day come to regret it.


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