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Overreacting to coronavirus? The perverse logic of panic during a potential pandemic

Overreacting to coronavirus? The perverse logic of panic during a potential pandemic

The best time to panic, that is, overreact to a potential pandemic is shortly after a novel pathogen has been detected. So say famed student of risk, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, and his colleagues. Of course, at that point, by definition few people have the virus and therefore it does not seem like a threat to the whole community.

In hindsight it is perfectly obvious that the extraordinary efforts now being made by individuals and communities across the world to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should have been made in those areas where the virus was first discovered when it appeared. However, it is natural that authorities do not wish to be criticized for “crying wolf” and, if they are elected officials, beaten at the next election for unnecessarily interfering with the life of the community.

But it is precisely what would be called an “overreaction” that might have stopped COVID-19 in its tracks at the beginning. I’ve written previously about those whose jobs are to make sure that small problems never become large and that some problems never even appear. The piece was called “Asymmetrical accolades: Why preventing a crisis almost never makes you a hero.”

In the present case, a doctor, now deceased from coronavirus, who warned Chinese authorities about the spread of the disease, was disciplined and criticized. The Chinese government has now offered a rare apology for its actions. As you can see, only in retrospect are such Cassandras heralded as prescient. (It is worth noting that when someone calls you a Cassandra, you should remind that person that the curse of Cassandra is that her prophesies always turned out to be true though no one ever believed her in advance.)

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