The March of the Black Swan

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    AS if there were no warnings in the past, both recent and distant.

    “Some radical change in the climate might flood the world with death-dealing micro-organisms. The fact is, we know little about the origin of diseases, and why at certain seasons certain epidemics arise. The bacillus of plague, of influenza, of cholera, of typhoid, or any other disease propagated by germs, finds that the climatic or atmospheric conditions are favorable, and promptly proceeds to multiply, and, once it had a free run, it could destroy the entire human race in a month.” [Herbert C. Fyfe. “How Will The World End?” 1900]

    And current. The United States Agency for International Development had an Emerging Pandemic Threats program (https://www.usaid.gov/global-health/health-areas/emerging-pandemic-threats) and a Pandemic Influenza and Other Emerging Threats Unit. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its Influenza Risk Assessment Tool (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/monitoring/irat-virus-summaries.htm). The 2017 National Risk Register of the United Kingdom contains an Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy. Even the “Marge in Chains” episode of “The Simpsons” (Season 4, 06 May 1993) had a gag about “Osaka Flu.”

    What is a Black Swan anyway? It is an event that lies outside the realm of regular expectations (outlier), carrying an extreme impact, thus triggering humans to “concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” Black Swan event = rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. [Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: The Impact Of The Highly Improbable. NY: Random House, 2007]

    Of killer diseases, in particular, the originator of the term wrote: “Why didn’t the bubonic plague kill more people? People will supply quantities of cosmetic explanations involving theories about the intensity of the plague and ‘scientific models’ of epidemics… had the bubonic plague killed more people, the observers (us) would not be here to observe. So it may not necessarily be the property of diseases to spare us humans. Whenever your survival is in play, don’t immediately look for causes and effects. The main identifiable reason for our survival of such diseases might simply be inaccessible to us: we are here since, Casanova-style, the ‘rosy’ scenario played out.” [Nassim Nicholas Taleb, pp. 119-120]

    Given Black Swan dynamics (“our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly the large deviations”), it now appears that it is our response to these events and our relations with fellow humans that truly matter. From ”The Story of My Experiments with Truth” by Mohandas K. Gandhi: “While the Indians were fretting over this state of things there was a sudden outbreak of the black plague, also called the pneumonic plague, more terrible and fatal than the bubonic… one of the gold mines in the vicinity of Johannesburg that was responsible for the outbreak… Sjt. Madanjit, who was then canvassing subscribers for Indian Opinion and realizing subscriptions, happened to be in the location at this moment. He was a remarkably fearless man. His heart wept to see these victims of the scourge, and he sent a pencil note to me to the following effect: ‘There has been a sudden outbreak of the black plague. You must come immediately and take prompt measures, otherwise, we must be prepared for dire consequences. Please come immediately.’ Sjt. Madanjit bravely broke open the lock of a vacant house, and put all the patients there. I cycled to the location, and wrote to the Town Clerk to inform him of the circumstances in which we had taken possession of the house.”

    “It is my faith, based on experience, that if one’s heart is pure, calamity brings in its train men and measures to fight it.” [THE BLACK PLAGUE—I. Part 4. Chapter 15]

    “I have said in an earlier chapter that I used to have my meals at a vegetarian restaurant. Here I met Mr. Albert West. We used to meet in this restaurant every evening and go out walking after dinner…My co-workers and I had reduced our diet since the outbreak, as I had long made it a rule to go on a light diet during epidemics. In these days I had therefore given up my evening dinner. Lunch also I would finish before the other guests arrived. I knew the proprietor of the restaurant very well, and I had informed him that as I was engaged in nursing the plague patients, I wanted to avoid the contact of friends as much as possible.” [THE BLACK PLAGUE—II. Part 4. Chapter 16]

    Human, all too human. “The day before yesterday I received your letter, Mother dearest, letters from Anyuta and Manyasha, a book from Anyuta (Nauchnoye Obozreniye) and cuttings from Manyasha. Merci for everything. I was terribly pleased to know that you are up and about again. What caused the epidemic of malaria in Podolsk? Is it a swampy place? Do you feel quite well now? It looks like being a good autumn here, dry and warm. What is it like where you are?” [V. I. Lenin, Letter To His Mother, August 22, 1899]

    Is it systemic? Is it personal? Local? Normal business?

    “At this very hour typhoid fever and diphtheria are epidemic in Chicago and the doctors agree that these ravages are due to the microbes and germs generated in the catch basins and sewers which fester and exhale their foul and fetid breath upon the vast swarms of human beings caught and fettered there…but to compensate for it all Chicago has the prize location for money-making, immense advantage for profit-mongering — and what are human beings compared to money?”

    “Look at some of her filthy streets in the heart of the city, chronically torn up, the sunlight obscured, the air polluted, the water contaminated, every fountain and stream designed to bless the race poisoned at its source — and you need not wonder what ails Chicago, nor will you escape the conclusion that the case is chronic and that the present city will never recover from the fatal malady.

    “What is true of Chicago physically is emphasized in her social, moral, and spiritual aspects, and this applies to every commercial metropolis in the civilized world.” [Eugene Debs, “What’s the matter with Chicago?” 1902]

    Black Swan dynamics. Or structural sins. Both? Like in the case of Hitlerism, thus, adding gravity to commemorations of 75th anniversaries of World War 2, including the liberation of Panay: “March 18, 1945 is of great historical and sentimental significance to both the veterans of the 6th Military District and the people of Panay and Romblon because it was the day when the Free Panay Guerrilla Forces launched the final assault on the Japanese Occupation Forces coinciding with the landing of the American Liberation Forces at the Tigbauan beach as prearranged between Col. Macario Peralta, Jr., founder and overall commander of the Free Panay Guerrilla Forces, and Lt. General Robert L. Eichelberger, Commanding General of the 8th United States Army.” [Philippine Presidential Proclamation No. 430, s. 1989]

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