Malaysia’s Ignorance of the Covid-19 Tail Event

The average Malaysian doesn’t grasp risk. That’s why there’s never a shortage of folks getting conned by Ponzi schemes, ‘romance and marriage’ scandals, bankruptcies, teen suicides, etc. At the back of our minds there’s always this “Oh such things will never happen to me!” kind of mindset. More critically, the fact that our airports still remain open to citizens from China show that even the Malaysian government doesn’t quite grasp risk. Why? Because somehow some key people at the top still don’t believe that a sufficiently disastrous event will occur (because we’re not Wuhan, right?).

As of last week (end Feb), the coronavirus has at least a 2–3% mortality rate, and a much higher basic reproduction number — or the number of other people a patient infects on average — than initially suspected: at least 4.7–6.6 instead of 2.2–2.7. In short, it is at least as virulent as the flu, and much deadlier. Doesn’t that warrant a (temporary) ban already?

Health Minister Datuk Seri Dzulkefly Ahmad said that a decision to ban entry from China must be ‘based on facts’. He’s actually not quite right — because you can base your deductions on facts and still succumb to disaster.

Risk expert Nassim Taleb has warned that many journalists, especially in the West, naively underestimate the potential impact of a novel disease such as COVID-19. They say, “But drowning in bathtubs has killed more people than this virus!” Yes, but this completely misses the fact that, unlike bathtubs, a virus can end up killing orders of magnitudes more people in the blink of an eye.

These journalists resemble folks who say that since more people die from cupboard accidents than from terrorist attacks that therefore governments should relax their anti-terrorism security. Can you spot the error? It’s simply that the reason why the casualty rate from terrorism is low is precisely because of heightened security.

This is also why the concept of ‘open borders’ fails to make sense, despite the ‘intuitive’ understanding that, well, only 1% of the 100,000 families crossing the border are bad people. Can you imagine a school being told that out of the 5,000 visitors next month, there will be one or two hardened criminals? Should security just let everybody in since it’s such a “small number”?

Likewise with Covid-19. It makes perfect sense for countries to deny entry to people flying in from China, Hong Kong, Macau, etc. because that is simply the best way to prevent a major disaster. Malaysia did the right thing by disallowing passengers from cruise ship MS Westerdam to disembark, after an American passenger tested positive for the virus. And too bad for the ‘convenience’ of the other passengers. Heck, even the Philippines have banned people flying in from China.

As we all know, our neighbouring countries Thailand and Singapore are currently suffering from this problem more than we are, but Malaysia is squeezed right in the middle. If countries as advanced as Singapore and Japan have difficulties in managing the virus, then we must not be complacent. While there will be some economic loss from a temporary travel and trade embargo on a large scale (e.g., as far as to not only China, but also Thailand and Singapore), it will pale in comparison to the unspeakable social and economic damage of an uncontrollable pandemic.

The problem is that you won’t necessarily know whether a security precaution you take ends up preventing a massive disaster. It is a bit like installing locks on cockpit doors before 9/11; people will complain that it’s pointless, but see what happened. Or, no matter how ‘empty’ the road looks, shouldn’t we all still look left and right before crossing?

To allow folks to continue coming in from China at this time is akin to allowing our children to follow strangers in the mall; I mean, it’s so unlikely there’ll be trouble, right? Right?!

In short, there is nothing irrational about being cautious — even to the point of resembling ‘paranoia’ — when you have good reason to think that the entire country is at risk. As the United States’ Center for Disease Control says: “we would rather be remembered for overreacting than under-reacting”.

Malaysia must hope for the best, but plan for the worst. We must ‘overreact’ for now. Stop the incoming flights from China. Yesterday.

This article was co-written with Trishank K Kuppusamy, a Malaysian computer scientist and security engineer who currently lives in New York City.

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.

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