Was the Corona Pandemic a Fundamental Surprise?

In his theory of fundamental surprises, Zvi Lanir, an Israeli intelligence officer (ret.) and Praxis institute founder, distinguishes between two types of surprises:

  1. Situational Surprise — lack of details, informational, and intelligence deficiencies.
  2. Fundamental Surprise — one that forces a reevaluation of an entire perceptual system.

Based on this distinction, he offers an illustrative example:

“One day, [Mr. Webster] arrived home unexpectedly to find his wife in the arms of his servant. “you surprised me”, said his wife. “and you have astonished me”, responded Webster”. “For Mrs. Webster, Lanir Explains, the failure was due to an external factor. For [Mr. Webster], comprehending the event’s significance required a wholistic reexamination of his self perceptions in relation to his environment.”

The outbreak of the current pandemic is hardly a situational surprise. In fact, it is not even a surprise. Scientists and scholars have addressed such an outbreak as a matter of time. In a TED talk from 2015, Bill Gates warned about the danger of a global epidemic and suggested that the world is not prepared for the spread of an infectious disease. Similarly, scientists have warned about the possibility of an uncontrollable disease outbreak many times. Some scientists have even discussed the coronavirus as a potential source of such disease. Following the Ebola and Swine Flu panic, several projects were launched to research new types of viruses that might cause such an outbreak. As time went by, however, funding for these initiatives was reallocated, leaving the world unprepared for what was likely to happen. While the possibility of a global pandemic was somewhere in the head of policy-makers and leaders, it was not perceived as an urgent threat compared to nuclear war, global terrorism, or cyber-attacks.

Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

Limited Adjustment Capabilities

Global affairs have undergone significant changes with the process of globalization that challenged the role of states as the most significant actors in the world system. The rise of international corporations, global social movements, and the ICT (information, communication, and technology) revolution has trivialized time and distance constraints but it has also undermined the role of the state. These far-reaching developments were accompanied by new threats. Democratization processes replaced traditional wars with asymmetric threats; global terrorism, international crime, cyber-attacks, fake-news in global scale, propaganda, and economic and legal warfare. For the most part, states have adjusted to these new threats by developing better intelligence, better cybersecurity, and more accurate, long-distance weapons.

Similarly, The global village takeover has dramatically changed the way states interact, and theories of soft-power and new diplomacy started to flourish. Practitioners promptly embraced the idea of “getting others to want the outcomes that you want” by cooperating with them rather than coercing them. Although the distinctions between coercion and cooperation remain vague, soft power was an effective method to confront or prevent global “soft” threats (propaganda, fake news, and civil-based resistance movements).

Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash

Consequently, after 9/11, a new wave of public diplomacy initiatives emerged. This wave was founded on the theoretical frameworks of pluralism, social justice, and equal opportunities. P2P diplomacy, state branding, and other civil discourse initiatives are just a few examples. Indeed, states proved the ability to adapt to changes that correspond with their perceptions, just as they are proving now how lethargic they are in identifying changes that divert from familiar perceptions. This disparity is the cause of fundamental surprises.

The Real Fundamental Surprise

The Covid-19 pandemic is a fundamental surprise because states did not consider natural threats as a potential game-changer. This realization is no less than a cognitive shock. The possibility of a global pandemic was known, but decision-makers were reluctant to fully appreciate its potential magnitude and impact. This reluctance had them trapped in a cage of ignorance that limited their sight and caught us all off-guard.

Surprises in general, are a subject of vast research. In her 1962 study, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, Historian Roberta Wahlstteter for example, suggested that ignorance about imperial Japan’s real intentions caused American intelligence to misread raw facts. “Background noises”, she argued, camouflaged evident warning signs and led to the intelligence failure. Similarly, scholars attribute the 9/11 surprise, to the CIA and FBI’s emphasis on tracking al-Qaeda operations outside the US. Looking for threats elsewhere diverted analysts’ attention from reading the correct warning signals and when signals were too obvious, fundamental disbelief blurred their severity of these signs. Lanir hinges these mechanisms on a cognitive-perceptual trap. He argues that obsolete mindsets might prevent one from giving sufficient attention to visible warning signs. Discussing the 1973 Israeli-Egyptian (Yom Kippur) war, he suggested that Israeli old mindset —that after its defeat in 1967, Egypt wouldn’t dare to launch an attack against Israel — prevented Israeli intelligence from adequately reading and interpreting the signs.

Did we misinterpret the signs?

The conditions that enabled the spread of the Corona pandemic were present for decades and significantly increased in the 21st century. High mobility, density, proximity, urbanization, and population growth are greenhouses for the spread of epidemics. These factors have been around for decades, if not centuries. But no one adequately assessed their potential impact in case of an outbreak. We have plans for action in cases of a terror attack, armies regularly prepare for unexpected agression, and hospital staffs undergo rigorous training on how to operate in a mass casualty event. It is quite clear that there was no plan on what to do with the spread of a microscopic, highly infectious virus. There was no plan because such a scenario was not included in the perceptual framework of potential threats. Indeed, while statemen might have considered a worldwide pandemic as a medical threat, they seemed to have miscalculated its social and political implications in a globalized world. State prepare for threats that come from other actors within the system. Threats from external sources are deemed controllable at best, and irrelevant at worst. But the changing reality suggests otherwise. The more we exploit our planet, the more we implicate environmental, ecological, and biological factors in our daily lives. As it turns out, these factors need to be considered carefully.

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Adi Levy

Adi Levy

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Ph.D. Visiting lecturer at the University of Haifa. Fascinated by the ethical questions of political science and trying to make sense of society and morality