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

March 29, 2020

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.)

In my previous piece I described the work of a quality assurance manager in a pharmaceutical plant as related by a friend in the industry:

I imagined that to his fellow employees this man must have been like an insect buzzing around their heads—a beneficial insect, to be sure—but a buzzing insect nevertheless.

It is doubtful that this man will ever receive an award for the deaths and illnesses averted because his diligence prevented impure drugs from reaching the public. Of course, there is no good way to gauge the number of lives saved or illnesses prevented. And, there is no one act people can point to as the clear reason that these deaths and illnesses never occurred. There is just the everyday heavy-handed enforcement of the safety and quality rules which only become an issue when they are violated.

On the other hand, problems which grow and become major catastrophes always mint a lot of new heroes:

In our thinking we place a premium on the dramatic rescue, the last-minute escape, and the ingenious on-the-fly technical solution. They all make good copy for reporters, and they make good stories for television and movies.

When the coronavirus has ceased to be a problem and faded from memory, will we regard the public health official who tells us we must meticulously wash our hands at every opportunity as merely a bothersome scold—especially if he or she is telling us this WHEN THERE IS NO IMMEDIATE AND VISIBLE THREAT! Will we believe the warning of such an official when only a few people show up to hospitals with a disease traced to a novel virus?

And, if those infected recover and no further spread occurs, won’t many once again say that the public health official was overreacting? And, the only reason it will seem that way is because the steps advised kept the virus contained.

Eventually, we may simply ignore that official because we do not understand one very important thing: That problems which start out small, but have the potential to create systemic ruin, MUST be solved when they are small. Waiting to see if such problems become large is courting the very systemic ruin we seek to avoid. The current result of letting coronavirus infections get out of control is a breakdown in the normal functioning of society for at least a number of months if not more than a year, and we get a snap economic depression to go along with it.

The lesson is quite clear. We must practice the precautionary principle whenever we are faced with problems that have the potential to cause systemic ruin.

So, in order to contain such potential pandemics in the future, we will have to “overreact” and panic early. That could force us to do that right thing—even though the right thing seems way out of proportion to the risk—in order to prevent a colossal problem that is many orders of magnitude worse that the inconvenience and economic loss associated with the early preventative steps we take.

But will we do it? Or will we forget what we are learning the hard way through the remorseless instruction being given to us by COVID-19?

And, will be able to extrapolate this experience to other dangers such as climate change and resource and energy depletion that threaten systemic ruin and are therefore existential dangers?

We should have a public discussion that makes the connection.

A masked family poster in a series of posters placed on the construction site of an infectious disease center in New Moscow and motivating workers during the COVID-19 coronovirus pandemic (2020). Government of Moscow. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: coronavirus, pandemics, panic