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04 May 2020

A Changing World: Life After COVID-19

Estimated reading time Time 6 to read

Understanding as a way to reinvent ourselves following a lethally smart virus

It happened in the blink of an eye, to put it metaphorically.  Suddenly, the virus had made its home in the body of more than hundreds, if not thousands, of people in different countries around the world. The coronavirus that started in the city of Wuhan, China, according to official sources, on December 31, 2019, which is where it got the name COVID-19, followed its natural course, ignoring borders, customs and tariffs.  

The part about following its natural course refers to a Chinese proverb that has become something like the slogan of the so-called chaos theory, developed by the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz in the 1960s, together with other scientists, which tries to answer the following question: Is it possible for a butterfly flapping its wings in Sri Lanka to cause a hurricane in the United States? If we interpret and adapt the chaos theory and butterfly effect to the current situation we are globally experiencing, this new outbreak of coronavirus, it could lead us to give the answer that an event, regardless of how unlikely it may seem, does not mean it is impossible for it to occur.

Plot of the Lorenz attractor, an icon of chaos theory. Credits: Dschwen

Proof of this is that the disaster is already upon us, shaking our political, social and economic gears as never before. So how can an invisible virus be defeated when it does not seem to produce symptoms in the people who carry, or carried, it the most? Furthermore, even though some insist with all their might on denying the obvious, the truth is that the virus does not care about social class, race, gender or other labels that divide us. COVID-19 has once again put Darwin’s hypothesis of “survival of the fittest” in style, which does not necessarily have to correspond to the strongest. In fact, it is Trump’s America that is the country that has been hit the hardest by COVID-19, and Italy and Spain have the highest number of deaths in Europe.

Going back in time to take stock of the situation

Media coverage of disasters or health crises is no simple task when right in the middle of them. However, it is important to analyze and clear up certain unknowns to the extent possible. That’s why, one of the key questions in this global pandemic is whether it could have been avoided. If it could not have been avoided, it could fall under the category of what the Lebanese-American philosopher and researcher Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a black swan. 

This concept is a metaphor that  Taleb developed in his 2007 book entitled The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. A black swan is a surprising event (for the observer) that has a great socioeconomic impact and after it happens it is rationalized retrospectively (making it seem predictable or explainable and giving the impression that it was expected to occur). In addition, these types of incidents considered extremely atypical, collectively play much bigger roles that regular events. 

For Taleb, examples of “black swans” throughout the history of humankind have included: the start of World War I, the Spanish flu, or the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That said, what do you think Taleb said about whether COVID-19 is another black swan? The answer, which is in this video published on March 31st, is no, as the author feels that the pandemic could have been prevented.

Examples of “black swans are the start of World War I, the Spanish flu, or the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks

However, although COVID-19 does not meet all the requirements for Taleb’s theory to be considered a real black swan, we cannot deny the evidence that we are facing an event that is disruptive on a planetary scale, whose future consequences we are not currently able to make out.  If there are documented facts, who in the past could have warned about the possibility of a pandemic outbreak of this magnitude?

Coronavirus pandemic: an overlooked reality

In October 2007, the academic journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews published that it is specializing in analysis of the most innovative developments in the areas of clinical microbiology and immunology in an article called: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection. In its introduction, it says: “The rapid economic growth in southern China has led to an increasing demand for animal proteins including those from exotic game food animals such as civets. Large numbers and varieties of these wild game mammals in overcrowded cages and the lack of biosecurity measures in wet markets allowed the jumping of this novel virus from animals to human. Its capacity for human-to-human transmission, the lack of awareness in hospital infection control, and international air travel facilitated the rapid global dissemination of this agent.” The conclusion of the same article says: “The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.”

BBVA-OpenMind-Javier Yanes-Los otros efectos del coronavirus- impacto COVID medioambiente 6 Las autoridades chinas han introducido normas más restrictivas sobre el comercio y el consumo de fauna salvaje. Crédito: Dan Bennett
Chinese authorities have introduced stricter rules for the sale and consumption of wild animals. Credit: Dan Bennett

In the year 2013, German authorities published the 2012 Report on risk analysis in civil protection (Bericht zur Risikoanalyse im Bevölkerungsschutz 2012). One of the sections of this official document described a simulation of a hypothetical outbreak of coronavirus around the world. The researchers who carried out this “simulation game” were a group or researchers led by the Robert Koch Institute. This is Germany’s public health agency, as well as the research center in charge of controlling and preventing diseases. On April 7th, the German magazine Der Spiegel published an article in which the author asked the following question, which is exactly what many people are thinking, and which can be extrapolated beyond Germany: “Why wasn’t Germany better prepared if it knew that this kind of scenario could occur? And therefore, what was the purpose of the report?” 

Meanwhile, Luis Enrique Martín Otero, colonel veterinarian and coordinator of VISVET at the Network of Biological Alert Laboratories (RE-LAB), who at the same time was Technical Director on a national level of the 2001 anthrax crisis, wrote the following article near the end of March: Covid19: silent biological threat. The first paragraph of this article has the following: 

“The global COVID 19 coronavirus crisis is showing the world that the path we had taken for health crises was not correct. Political leaders only support health researchers when health disasters occur, with deaths, thousands of affected people, and momentous economic consequence for the proper functioning of society. They do not respond to health researchers’ requests for financial support when they apply for financing to prevent what is taking place today.”

In this fragment, Martín Otero also makes it clear that this pandemic was not a black swan. He argues the following: “As long as nothing happens, politicians do not value the importance of constantly researching these biological threats. Those of us working on them know that they will occur, but we don’t know when.” 

However, humans are not the only ones who have been making forecasts about a possible global pandemic from coronavirus. So have some  AI based computer programs, as described by Ramón López de Mántaras Badia, Director of the CSIC Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which anticipated the outbreak, but the use of these data was not completely smart and effective. It was missing a human mind, as Ramón clarifies, or more precisely, a group of them spaced out over the world in order to interpret and manage the data or conclusions obtained from the machines. 

On a sinking ship, focus on what is important 

Apparently, for some unknown reason, deciphering the future continues to be humans’ great dream. So far, we have been chasing this goal, and continue to do do, still drunk on a sort of blind hope. 

Some of the hypothetical causes that could have led to this scenario could stem from: the very limits of human understanding of reality and human nature, which have led us to not have appropriate mechanisms to manage these kinds of incidents; perhaps out of some kind of ignorance or arrogance; together with an implemented technology that is even baptized with the name artificial intelligence, which is not yet as intelligent as previously believed, as it has not been adapted to the basic needs of a globalized, constantly evolving world. This could be due once again to the knowledge, understanding or more precisely, the design of artificial intelligence itself, as more than betting on implementing technology that lowers the weaknesses we face as a species, we have attempted, and continue to attempt, to only simulate some aspects of our human intelligence, playing some sort of Homo Deus. 

If the famous cult of reason and the systematization of science, which is so important to the method and for scientific progress is combined with the impetus to continue deciphering the role that human emotions play to a greater extent, as well as the nature of our fear of uncertain events, the origin of power struggles, our systems of beliefs and values, of our decision-making and therefore of our identity, we will have managed to make a qualitative evolutionary leap. 

However, these more profound causes will be better analyzed and studied after the fact, when we are able to take stock of this historic period with more perspective, understood as from a distance, with the calmness and tranquility that no one currently possesses as we are completely immersed in the fight for survival. However, if we don’t do it, our eternal great enemy will have won the battle: oblivion. 

Rosae Martín Peña


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