Oblivion: How Society Forgets

I’m cross. All around me I see people learning the wrong lessons. If we waste 2020, if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it, that will be a worse disaster than the pandemic itself.

The world was ill-prepared for the pandemic. Terribly ill-prepared. Cast your mind back to March or April 2020. The shortages, the confusion, the awful and irreversible policy failures – they were not evenly distributed across the world.

Early success in battling the virus was seen in some countries. Taiwan did well. Mongolia had almost no coronavirus for about a year. China cracked down hard and has kept SARS-nCov-2019 from circulating for most of the past 12 months. Australia, despite some big blunders, did well too.

The countries that did better are mostly in Asia. Recent experience with SARS made these countries far more pandemic-aware and left them far better placed to fight the virus. They had not forgotten the risk of plague. How did they remember? Not because of something that makes their societies more cohesive. Simply because of recent experience. Little time had passed since they last faced a deadly contagious disease.

RECENCY

The importance of recent disaster experience is plain for me. I remember Black Saturday vividly. Black Saturday was a day of death. On 7 February 2009 the temperature reached forty-six-degrees (115oF) in Melbourne, Australia, the city where I live. By nightfall that day 173 people had burned to death in a series of enormous, linked infernos that turned the land into a hell where fleeing the fires was likely to leave you dead in your car, and staying still would leave you in the merciless path of enormous flames

Haze choked the sky. I remember checking the Bureau of Meteorology’s rain radar that day and looking at the strange patterns the radar identified as heavy rain. These were not rain, but smoke. Enough particles of plant, of animal and of person were lifted into the sky by the blazes as to leave a huge radar signature. Those fires were enormous and they made a tremendous mark in our memories.

Eleven years later, in the summer of 2019-20, intense bush fires raged again in Australia. This time instead of one very bad day, they lasted for over a month. The fires burned 40 times as much land as the Black Saturday fires. By almost every count, the fires were worse – every day was a state of emergency. The smoke cloud travelled around the world. And yet the fatality count was far lower, at 34 deaths. The living memory of Black Saturday is a huge reason why. We all knew how many people had died in Black Saturday, and we knew how they had died – by not evacuating early enough. The fresh collective memory of tragedy prevented the recurrence from being even worse.

UN-PRECEDENTED

Throughout the pandemic I have become absolutely fed up with this word: “unprecedented”. You hear it everywhere, usually on the lips of people who ought to know much better, people whose copy of the OED will tell them what that word means. The world has experienced pandemic before. Often. Ebola raged in West Africa within the last few years. SARS hit China in 2003. MERS was a small but even more recent zoonotic respiratory virus, hitting in 2012 with a fatality rate of one in three.

In 2003, on a train, at the Mongolian-Chinese border. They didn’t swab me, so far as I recall, but they did read my temperature.

The big reason we should have been ready for a big pandemic is not those serious yet contained outbreaks confined to a handful of countries. It is the fact that just 103 years ago – practically within living memory – the world experienced the Spanish Flu. The 1918 pandemic killed 50 million people. FIFTY MILLION! In a global population that was then much smaller, perhaps 25 per cent of what it is now. What’s more, that flu virus was “atypically fatal to those aged 20–40 years.”

How is it that the memory of this enormous tragedy is not carried forth, memorialised publicly, and even more importantly, embodied in extremely good pandemic preparation practice?

Compared to Spanish Flu, we’ve gotten off lightly for our ill-preparedness. Covid-19 has killed almost 3 million so far, and has mostly spared the young from death. We could have had it much worse, and the reason for a better result this time is, emphatically, not our careful tending to the lessons of history.

DOOMED TO REPEAT IT

The Spanish Flu was not part of our mainstream discourse on risk. They called it “The Forgotten Pandemic.” In 1924, Encyclopedia Brittanica published an enormous compendium on the preceding quarter century of history, titled “These Eventful Years: The Twentieth Century in the Making, as Told by Many of Its Makers; Being the Dramatic Story of All that Has Happened Throughout the World During the Most Momentous Period in All History.” I sounds like a good read, containing a chapter by Marie Curie on radium and a chapter by Sigmund Freud on pscyhoanalysis. However, it mentions Spanish Flu not even once. A search for the term “pandemic” in its pages reveals no mentions.

But why? Spanish Flu was not so long ago for its history to be written on shards of papyrus that crumble when we touch them. Colour photography had been invented. The New York Times was operating then. The Times of London too. There are people wearing masks in nursing homes right now who were alive during the last big pandemic. We say Lest We Forget when it comes to the big war that ended in 1918, but when it comes to memories of the pandemic – which killed more people than the war, mind you – it’s more a case of … forget what? It languished in the shadow of World War One and was forgotten even as soon as it began.

That forgetting meant the chance of us being ready for coronavirus was slight. And then a century passed.

By 2019, as coronavirus began to mutate, and spread from a rogue pangolin to the first humans, the west was standing down its viral defences. in 2018 The Trump administration cut the programs designed to defend the United States of America from a virus, and its top experts quit.

What limited pandemic war-gaming that did take place in the United States revealed the country to be woefully ill-prepared. America was hardly alone, it is simply held up as an example of a country that *should* have had the resources to defend against the threat. Bill Gates tried to warn them, after all, as this 2015 video shows.

The UK tried to do better and still failed. Horribly.

Now, vaccine technology is helping some countries make up for their monstrous early errors. The efforts of the scientists are heroic and should be applauded. But they are not reason to ignore the lesson, which is this:

We forget.

We really ought not to. We ought to know some disasters come around only rarely. But when time passes, and for certain other reasons, we let some events fade into oblivion.

Letting disaster memory erode like the half-life of some isotope is not good enough if we want to protect society. But some events recur in a way that makes us blasé. Earthquakes, viral outbreaks, volcanoes, tsunamis, recessions, terrorist attacks, even wars. All have apocalyptic versions that come rarely and irregularly, plus mild regular versions that wear down our will to maintain vigilance. This is the perfect recipe for society to forget.

THE BIG ONE

They say 80 per cent of the insights come from 20 per cent of the philosophers. 19th century Italian mathematician Vilfredo Pareto is found firmly in the small but important group on whom we depend.

Pareto lends his name to several key ideas in maths and the social sciences, but what is most important for our purposes is the pareto distribution. Pareto distributions are the ones that surprise us. They differ from normal distributions, or bell curves. In a pareto distribution, the tail of the distribution is responsible for the extreme majority of its impact.

For example, a tiny minority of the earthquakes in any time period account for the large part of the seismic energy released, as the next graph depicts. Earthquakes over 6.5 in scale are in yellow, those over 5.3 in green.

LDEO observatory, Columbia University.

Similarly, the average pop band gets most of its Spotify spins from a minority of its songs, the average company makes most of its money from a handful of its products, 90 per cent of the salary cap for your favourite sports team goes to a minority of players, Most of the people in Australia live in a handful of cities, etc.

The pareto distribution is everywhere – even in disasters. A minority of the cyclones do most of the damage, a few tsunamis are much worse than the rest put together, the largest terrorist attack in history has a death count several fold higher than the second largest, etc.

This matters, because when pareto distributions happen over time, the interval between serious events will be random, and potentially large. Look back at that earthquake graph above. Until the magnitude 9.1 Indian Ocean quake in 2004, there was no sign of a quake of anything like that size in the preceding 30 years.

That means two things:

IN the aftermath of a rare and major disaster, we will usually castigate ourselves for not understanding it was possible, zero in on only the disaster that just happened, and prepare, quite specifically, for it to happen again. Even though it is no more likely to happen again.

Later, when a great deal of time has passed, we will conclude that we overreacted. We will dismantle the institutions we built, reduce our defences, make savings, forget what really happened, and become overexposed. That is when the severe risk emerges. (However the simple passage of time is not the only cause of forgetting. More on that in a future post).

Big White Swans

Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term Black Swans to describe unforeseen events that do great damage. The idea behind the coinage is that nobody had seen a Black Swan before, only white swans, and nobody ever expected black swans were even possible.

It’s not his fault the idea went viral. It’s our fault for believing it, for not seeing it as the ego-massage that it is. We are exceedingly complimentary to ourselves by imagining only black swans can screw us up, that only the unforeseen can assails us. This is conceit, it is arrogance, and it is part of the problem.

The more I learn about disasters and forgetting, the more I come to realise society suffers regular and devastating attacks by plain white swans. “HOLY HELL WHERE DID THAT THING COME FROM?” we ask as the swan’s pointy beak tears at our flesh.

How can we be expected to prepare for that which we’ve never seen before, when we can’t even properly prepare for what we have seen time and again?

More to come in PART 2 soon.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

9 thoughts on “Oblivion: How Society Forgets”

  1. You are correct – forgetting the known is a common human failing. So too is the lack of imagination – to fail to forsee what current trends will bring about.

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    1. Are you aware of the researchers focused on existential risk flowing from out of control Artificial Intelligence? They’re preparing based on forecasting. But the more I look back at how poorly we prepare for *known* risks we’ve been through many times, the more I think such research is an extravagance!

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  2. Yes, “unprecedented” my arse. Similarly in 2007 no economist could possibly have foreseen a housing downturn which triggered loan defaults – even though it had only been a bit over a decade since the last similar episode. There are powerful cultural forces which water down and filter out bad news, especially in good times. No one wants to contemplate death. We all live forever, right?

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  3. I’m not sure the Spanish Flu was exactly forgotten. I have known about it for a long time – it took my grandmother’s sister in her prime. It was featured in the plot of Downton Abbey which is pretty mainstream. The 1968 Hong Kong Flu was new to me. The conditions created by WW1 probably had something to do with the severity of the Spanish Flu. It also seems that some places did much better than others, just like now with COVID. Countries like Singapore didn’t just learn from SARS, they are just much faster and more effective at reacting to the spread of disease. They were quick to mobilise against SARS which required a different approach to COVID. I think the much more important question is to look at why countries like Australia are less able to take decisive action when needed (although we did better than the UK and US) and what role the media plays in this.

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    1. Forgetting is relative!!! Educated people know of lots of things that are not well-remembered.
      The important thing about the Spanish Flu is compared to the death toll it is wildly under-represented in memory, and you see this particuarly clearly standing right next to world war 1 – for which you could never count up the books plaques, obelisks, cenotaphs, paintings. It clearly wasn’t remembered proportionally.
      Also, it’s worth saying that SARS – and even AIDS prior to that – rekindled interest in Spanish Flu. The deepest period of “forgetting” it was curiously enough in its immediate aftermath.

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