This Easter dozens of former heads of state and government from around the world have written and signed a letter to the G20 demanding a global joint strategy to deal with the health and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
The signatories, some of whom sat around the G20 tables not many years ago, criticize that the countries are competing like hyenas for a sanitary material that is not enough for everyone and demand the logics of the nation states and of economic orthodoxy be left aside, and add that something akin to a global Marshall plan should be organised to combat the pandemic and prevent a global economic recession.
The uncertainty in which we live
It is just one example of the unprecedented things that are happening in the world for a fact that could not be simpler and at the same time more resounding: suddenly the entire human species is cornered and afraid of a nanoscopic organism that is capable of colonize it and kill hundreds of thousands of its members, perhaps even millions.
It reminds us that, despite all the layers of culture that we have accumulated over the past millennia, we have not stopped being biological beings that live in a biosphere on which we completely depend. But, even more important, it makes us feel the real uncertainty in which we live, an uncertainty that, for many reasons, we refuse and hide to ourselves.
Taleb and the «black swans»
There is an author who for decades has stood out for warning of this uncertainty and the risks of not taking it into account: Nassim Nicholas Taleb began by warning of the fragility of the financial world and was one of the few who predicted the crisis of the 2008.
To develop his theory, he invented a country, Extremistan, in which what he called «Black Swans» live, unknown phenomena capable of causing big changes, changes that often carry very big, enormous risks.
Also live in Extremistan the political and economic leaders and all the people who, as are risks that we do not yet know, deny that they can exist, as philosophers denied the existence of black swans, until in the 17th century they were discovered … in Australia. Taleb adds that this attitude is like gasoline that feeds the extreme phenomena that happen in Extremistan, because they confuse the absence of evidence for evidence of absence.
The Coronavirus, a «White Swan»
But a pandemic like this Taleb calls it a «White Swan», because it is a known risk: decades, centuries, millennia ago humans suffered equivalent epidemics. Despite this, and despite recent warnings like SARS, MERS, and Ebola among others, we had not really prepared for when one capable of spreading as this new coronavirus is arriving.
And it is curious, because for decades we have been very concerned about many other problems, problems that, in these moments of alarm, seem insignificant, we have even almost forgotten. And right now, we’re not too worried about another, much bigger risk that we still don’t see clearly, even though we often talk about it: climate change.
Because this risk still seems distant, it is coming too slowly for our collective nervous system to perceive it with the clarity with which we have perceived the risk posed by the coronavirus. Well, actually we have seen this clearly when we have already had it on us.
The entire biosphere threatened
Climate change is a much bigger risk because it threatens not only humanity, but the entire biosphere. On the other hand, without the measures being taken in more and more countries, the coronavirus would have done the same as the previous great pandemics: it would have killed a part of humans and the rest, the vast majority, would have survived, would have acquired resistance against the virus and would have continued to grow in number.
But the value that we now give to human life, together with the medical and scientific knowledge that we have acquired, for example, since the Spanish flu of a century ago, prevents us from accepting it, so we do everything possible to avoid it. We are helped by the memory that more than 40 million people died around the world at the time, and also by the historical and mythical memory of medieval plagues, among many other epidemics.
But what scares us the most is uncertainty: will it be my turn, the coronavirus? Am I the «chosen one»? Will they be my parents, my grandparents, my uncles? Because uncertainty affects us collectively, but especially individually.
What can we do?
We do not yet know how this pandemic will end, because there are small «black swans» inside it, the specific risks that it will entail in the most immediate future: Will the heat make the virus go back? Will it mutate and become more deadly? Will it become chronic and we will live in fear for months, years, until it has reached the last corner of the planet and we know that it will not return? And the so-called third world, in poor countries, what will it do? All this nobody knows yet and we will not know until it is happening or has happened. Because of all this, we feel helpless, even desperate, without knowing what to do. Everyone, without exception.
But aside from fighting coronavirus, there is one thing we can do: start to get the idea that uncertainty will always be there even if we don’t talk about it, even if we don’t see it. And that at any time there may be risks that we do not know now and, therefore, do not expect. Accepting it can make them less painful when they arrive, and can also help us change priorities to avoid locating ourselves in Extremistan.
With the coronavirus crisis we have a good opportunity to start practicing. For example: really preparing ourselves to mitigate the climate crisis, which will befall us in the coming decades. That actually has already fallen on us.
Josep Maria Camps Collet
Initially published at


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