While making plans for what looked like a looming corona-pocalypse, I thought back (as I often do) over the many disasters of history and what they must have looked like, before-hand, to the people caught in them.
What did ordinary Poles think on the eve of WWII? We know they did not expect war to arrive so furiously on their doorsteps, because if they had, the entire nation would have converted every scrap of wood and metal they had into boats and poured into the Baltic long before the Germans arrived. One in 5 Poles died in the war, a death rate that makes almost any risk worth taking. Almost no one expected this ahead of time; certainly many expected war, but only the most paranoid imagined tragedy at this scale.
And what did the average Jew expect? Certainly Hitler said some very unpleasant things about them, but again, no one expected cattle cars and gas chambers.
Wealth is tricky. You need money to buy your way out (few people can just walk or kayak their way out of a country,) but it is rarely kept in easily portable gold coins under the mattress. People tend to invest their money into houses or productive enterprises, which are difficult to liquidate quickly. If you realize that you need to get out fast, you can sell your house, but may only get half of its true value. (When Isaac Bacirongo had to flee the DRC in Still a Pygmy, he had to sell his house overnight; he got about half its value.) Even worse are degrees and certifications that you’ve spent years of effort and money to earn that are only good in one country. Having money is better than not having money, but moving money fast is difficult and requires significant losses–and people who’ve put a lot of effort into making money in the first place don’t like taking huge losses on the chance that something might go wrong in the future.
And it only gets worse if you have a family. Pull your kids out of school? Convince your wife’s parents to come with you? Leave your brother and sister behind?
Even if you think, “Things are going to get bad,” well, how bad? Enough to sell everything you own, take massive losses, and take your chances with the sharks?
The time to get out is early, when things are still good, but at this point, there’s no reason to get out. What are you, paranoid? The worse things get, the more obvious it becomes that you need to get out, but the worse things get, the harder it becomes to liquidate your assets and run. In other words, costs–while always high–are lower when risk is low and higher when risk is high.
So who gets out? The paranoid, the prescient, and the peripatetic (that is, those whose lives are already optimized for moving).
I’m sure insurance companies have an extensive literature on the subject.
It’s only in retrospect that we have the luxury of saying, “Boy, things sure did get bad! Here’s exactly when people should have gotten out!” Then we can tsk-tsk the ones who didn’t, the ones who didn’t see the writing on the wall or who weren’t willing to pull up stakes and run. In reality, though, you don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens.
I was worried enough about ebola to buy a big bag of rice and another of beans. There’s no harm in rice and beans, as I see it, and a lot of good if I need them. Thankfully ebola never became a big deal in the West–while it is awful and horrible and makes people basically explode, it is still difficult to catch if you don’t come in contact with the body and have things like modern sewer systems. Whew.
After that false alarm, should I be worried about corona? Certainly it has been a big deal in China, but will it peter out like SARS, and MERS, and ebola? Or will it spread out of control? Again, for me, preparation was not a big deal. I still had some of the rice and beans, after all; I already homeschool my kids. But this is obviously not true for everyone else. Most people have had difficult decisions to make. Few were prescient enough to make really hard ones in the weeks before the government started shutting things down and taking official steps to contain it. To most people, corona simply wasn’t a “real” threat when it was merely overseas; things only got real when the government declared it so. To many people, corona still isn’t a real threat, and won’t be until–or unless–thousands die. Of course, by that point, it’s much too late.
Containment strategies are best implemented early, before you know if the disease is a real threat or not. If they work, then the disease never turns into a problem–and if other countries do the same, then you have the difficulty of not knowing what would have happened had you not tried to contain the disease. You will know how much it cost you, but you don’t know how much you saved. Maybe the disease wouldn’t have been a problem anyway.
Let the disease spread, and if bodies start racking up, then you can implement containment strategies–but it will be too late for thousands of people.
People can calculate normal risks.
Calculating exceptional risks, though, is much harder.