Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }
Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
The Zero Canada Project provides resources to help you make the most of staying home.
Visit the hub

Dan Gardner is the author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. He is a senior fellow in the graduate school of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa.

In 2003, a novel coronavirus emerged from Asia, spread to two dozen countries, sickened about 8,000 people and killed 774. But SARS was stopped. That close call was enough to convince a subcommittee of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which runs Wimbledon, that pandemic was a risk worth preparing for: It added a clause covering disruption by reason of pandemic to its annual insurance policy.

Like all such events in the near future, Wimbledon has been cancelled. Unlike so many others, Wimbledon will be fine because it is insured.

Story continues below advertisement

In theory, being prepared for low-probability, high-consequence events such as a pandemic should not be difficult. Identify threats. Consider how to mitigate. Weigh costs of mitigation against probability and consequence, factoring in available resources and competing demands. Prepare.

If a subcommittee of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club can do it, surely corporations and governments can, too.

But as the present crisis demonstrated on a global scale, and a Globe and Mail story revealed in the Canadian context, corporations and governments did a miserable job of preparing this time. Sadly, that is the norm. Folly is routine. It is the wisdom of Wimbledon that is the aberration.

Why is that? The problem isn’t that the threats cannot be foreseen.

In the case of the present pandemic, epidemiologists have been shouting about the threat for decades. SARS was a warning as loud as an air-raid siren. So were H1N1, MERS and Ebola. There was a Hollywood movie, a Time cover and a Bill Gates TED talk. As The Globe revealed, a 2006 Canadian federal government report laid out a scenario that looks eerily like what we’re experiencing now.

Anybody who cared to look saw this coming from miles away.

How many coronavirus cases are there in Canada, by province, and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

Coronavirus guide: Updates and essential resources about the COVID-19 pandemic

What are the coronavirus rules in my province? A quick guide to what’s allowed and open, or closed and banned

But they only saw the threat vaguely. No one could say precisely what form it would take, where it would emerge or when. We knew only there was a small probability, each year, that a virus with the potential to go pandemic and do terrible harm would appear.

Story continues below advertisement

That was a problem. People don’t think naturally in terms of probabilities. “It will happen” or “it won’t” is our default mode. Tell people there is a 99-per-cent chance something will occur and most will treat it as a sure thing. Tell them there is a 1-per-cent chance and they will think it impossible.

For the most part, this tendency does not get us in trouble because, by definition, low probability events seldom happen, so those who ignore them do not suffer. In fact, if you don’t buy insurance or stockpile supplies or build redundancy into your supply chain, you save money. It pays to ignore low-probability threats.

But if there is a 1-per-cent chance of something happening this year, and next, and every year thereafter, the highly improbable is inevitable. It is also inevitable that those who don’t prepare will regret it.

Of course, after the highly improbable disaster happens, everything changes. People rush to prepare, damn the cost.

At least for a while. As time passes, memories fade. The feeling of threat vanishes like a ghost at sunrise. Eventually, it seems only reasonable to let insurance lapse, stockpiles expire and supply chains thin.

That’s the psychology. Psychology feeds popular perception. Popular perception fuels politics.

Story continues below advertisement

And politics – “who gets what, when, how,” in Harold Lasswell’s classic definition – decides what actually gets done.

In the mid-1990s, reports of terrorists planning to hijack airplanes and crash them into buildings led American aviation safety experts to recommend that cockpit doors be reinforced and kept closed and locked in flight. The change wasn’t made. Airlines didn’t want to do it (reinforced doors are heavier so planes with them would burn a little more fuel) and politicians who got campaign donations from the airlines agreed.

Then 9/11 happened, the change was implemented in October, 2001, and then-president George W. Bush congratulated the airlines for moving so quickly. President, prime minister or CEO, it makes no difference. This is how politics usually prepares.

There are many recurring low-probability, high-consequence threats we are not prepared for. (Google “catastrophic geomagnetic storm” if you need something to keep you awake at night.) Only leadership willing to defy politics and support rational analysis and risk mitigation – not once or twice, but continuously, over a period of many years – can change that.

Whether governments and corporations will rise to the august standards of a subcommittee of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club remains to be seen.

Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell discusses the far-reaching impact of the coronavirus pandemic on refugees, conflict and the economy. Gladwell was in conversation with Rudyard Griffiths from the Munk Debates. The Globe and Mail

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

In the interests of public health and safety, our coronavirus news articles are free for anyone to access. However, The Globe depends on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe to globeandmail.com. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.

Your subscription helps The Globe and Mail provide readers with critical news at a critical time. Thank you for your continued support. We also hope you will share important coronavirus news articles with your friends and family. In the interest of public health and safety, all our coronavirus news articles are free for anyone to access.

Related topics

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies