Nassim Nicholas Taleb rose into fame as a risk analyst when his 2007 book, The Black Swan, was described as one of the most influential books since World War II.

The subject matter of his book does not seem like the normal everyday conversation, so for him to have pulled such popularity with this book was in itself a black swan. The book is about randomness, probabilities and uncertainty.

The most interesting part of Nassim’s story of success was his sense of timing, and how that book helped ‘predict’ the big global financial crisis in 2008. In this article I ask if COVID-19 is a black swan and what it will likely take to survive if it is. 

Let us start from the heart of the problem, averages and definitions. The human species has a limit to knowledge, the things we are sworn to have observed are sometimes tainted with biases and there are countless unseen and unknowns even in our best predictions. The beauty of modern science, however, is the pursuit to know the truth and predict the future.

We curate expertise and commoditize ideas, dish them out as maps of reality- a predictive life’s guide that we can bet on. We are always taught that averages are how we best-fit EXPECTATIONS and the whole pursuit should be how to define such expectations with a formula so we can predict the future. 

I love the science of prediction and decision making and take pleasure in the almost exactitude one could ‘prophesy’ some event due to the ability to define a near accurate pattern which guides expectations, saving all of us from trending in the dark without a guide. In the discus of this science of ‘averages’ however, we fail to talk about the tails and the worst possible scenarios giving an endurably long holding period in such long tails. We are blinded of the nuance as we pursue the averages and that is the knowledge that must begin the search for survival in black swans.

So now to the point, pandemics. 1918 influenza pandemic is said to have affected a third of the world’s population and killed between 50 to 100 million people. However, many people managed to survive a severe infection and others displayed only mild symptoms. 50 million deaths in 1918 where the global population was estimated at around 1.8 billion was catastrophic, to say the least.

Lovers of predictions and modelling, however, have an interesting forecast: “If a similar pandemic occurred today, scientists estimate the death toll could be as high as 147 million. While it is impossible to know when or how the next flu pandemic will emerge, one thing is certain — future pandemics won’t be exactly like the 1918 pandemic, but it still has lessons to teach us.”[1] 

The “Spanish influenza,” as it was called taught us many things but the most enduring lesson is perhaps that, governments are not the best managers of uncertainties least of all black swans. The history points to how the pandemic overwhelmed local hospitals, forced businesses, schools and churches to close and exposed serious shortfalls in how governments organize society. Personal responsibility, therefore, proves to hold superior likelihoods of prevention and control.

According to John M. Barry, the author of ‘The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History’, “the biggest lesson from the 1918 pandemic is clearly to tell truth”, so permit me to share some truths, as we know it, about COVID-19.

  1. Authorities are usually keen to keep a national or organisational morale and they will usually keep a jokey perspective and reassure so as to frame and define expectations in more favourable terms than it may be. The truth being that, if a business person can profit from the chaos or a politician can increase power even at the risk of many lives, they may reframe for the benefits of those expectations irrespective of the most probable consequences of the black swan.
  2. The probability of death as we know it now is about 4%. This means that, for every 100 positive tests confirmed for the virus, only 4 do die and thus is likely to die. This does not mean however that we should not take the pandemic seriously as the first 4 people who contract the virus will not wait for the 96 before any can die. The truth being that, you could be one of the 4% if you ever contract the virus or worse, the 4% is only limited to the cohort and not an individual’s exact probability.
  3. Out of the data for the confirmed deaths, for every 5 deaths, one is above 80 years. It will appear the age has become the narrative but is the age the variable or it is only a derivative of the underlying truth of how strong one’s immune system is? Should the stories focus on how to strengthen the immune system too or focus on age which is deterministic?
  4. Getting enough sleep and managing stress is a proven natural means of boosting the immune system, so does the panic and chaos make this all-important quest of distressing any better? What happened to the truth of eating fruits and vegetables and exercise as a more predictive element of survival if even one got the virus?
  5. Bad personal hygiene is likely to kill you so is bad emotional and psychological hygiene. So yes, washing your hands may save you from the virus, and by all means, follow good hygiene, but maintain a good mental hygiene too, as the effects of the fear on your heart and well-being are as real.
  6. The ultimate truth is, “we are learning new things about the virus, every day”. Truth simplified we don’t know jack. It will, therefore, make sense for all of us who have suddenly become COVID-19 experts to reassess what we truly think we know and differentiate it from what is indeed knowable.
  7. We may not know the virus, but we know human beings and history teaches that the ability to adapt is a measure of resilience and only the resilient shall survive in the worst black swans.
  8. It is equal truth that, there is a kayayo woman whose norm is the hustle of the everyday Ghanaian market place, a woman who has three children begging on the street, a woman and 3 homeless children who are at risk as much as all of us.

Let me find resolve in the common truth that we know very little about this virus. Like all black swans, they are spoken of in hindsight with conviction. There are expectations, which we must by all means have but there are also uncertainties which we must learn to flourish in.

Uncertainties, however, have a senior brother, the black swan (A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight.[2]). 

We may be able to define, even measure and mitigate uncertainties but a black swan is a special kind of ‘fuckery’, you just eat pie and wait for it to pass so you tell your grandchildren you survived on sanitizers without water and in perpetual Dum.

Certainly pray that this is not a black swan, because faith will be needed, but above all live your best life today because life has never been guaranteed anyways. Let us in conclusion be reminded of the Tardigrades, the animal that is said can survive without food or water for more than 30 years.

In extreme conditions, the tardigrade does not panic or burn more energy, it lowers metabolism to less than 0.01% of what is ordinarily normal for it. It hibernates and waits until it can rehydrate, forage and reproduce but when the timing is against it, it just keeps calm and learns.

My name is Yaw Sompa, I represent AfricaLearn and will always be a believer in the African and in humanity, particularly today.


[1] “Lessons from the 1918 flu pandemic, 100 years on.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 October 2018.

[2] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/blackswan.asp