Part of the challenge faced by crisis planners is balancing the cost of preparing for the unknown. To quote Karl Schroeder, “foresight is not about predicting the future, it’s about minimising surprises” and having systems and process in place to respond if they do occur. Identifying these approaches costs money, as does their ongoing development and the requisite personnel training, so there is naturally a balance to be found based on your appetite towards risk and an understanding of specific events’ potential implications.
Immunologists have long raised the risk of an airborne virus precisely of COVID-19’s nature spreading across the globe. Equally, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 is a relevant case study, highlighting the consequences of such an episode. Clearly, COVID-19, although highly unlikely, was not unforeseeable.
The concepts of ‘black swans’ and ‘grey rhinos’ describe these types of events; those that are either genuinely unforeseeable or those that represent something you actually can see coming, if you are prepared to look. COVID-19 was, in this context, a grey rhino and not a black swan, so arguably shortcomings in our collective responses need to be addressed with a critical eye and an admission that we could have done better in certain areas.
However, if we apply the same logic, there are other events that are even less likely but potentially more catastrophic. A solar flare or geomagnetic storm, an asteroid strike, or a super-volcanic eruption are all plausible. But, do we need to plan for these? In an ideal world, we would have some level of planning and preparedness for even these types of events - developed under the premise of comprehensive WCS planning. In reality, the likelihood of these events occurring means even the largest governments are unlikely to have fully considered their intended response or even the possible consequences.
Planners need to expect the unexpected and put all options on the planning table. Nothing should be considered too unlikely to be discussed, especially if a severe outcome can reasonably be projected. What flexes is the level of investment that an organisation or government is prepared to assign to exploring the potential risks and the level of detail applied to the subsequent planning.