If “the black swan” is a term for an unpredictable occurrence of a disaster, we also have a name for a future incident that is totally foreseeable, equally preemptable, yet deliberately ignored by decision makers and policymakers: the “black elephant.” This term is originally derived from the idiom “elephant in the room,” which means “a problem glaringly visible to all, addressed by none.” When combining the said elephant with the black swan, the new compound “black elephant” is born. The term is used to describe a disaster we see coming from miles away, then decide to respond by burying our heads in the sand, refusing to face the reality.
In terms of policy making as well as disaster prevention and preparedness, the ability to see the distinction between the black elephant and the black swan is crucial. When a disaster occurs unexpectedly, it can be an out-of-the-blue, unpreventable hazard. Only emergency relief can respond to such a problem. However, we also develop a bad habit of mistaking every black elephant for black swans. In our hearts we know that a crisis is bound to happen, yet we choose to ignore it completely, or turn our eyes away from its looming shadows.
An example of the black elephant assumed to wear the black swan’s skin is the COVID-19 pandemic. The outbreak was regarded as an unpredictable but natural evolution of a novel contagion. However, in 2019, the Global Health Security Index already warned that the global capacity for pandemic response was acutely low. Experts, policymakers, and decision makers around the world already had this information in their hands, yet no measure was taken to prepare a proper response or mitigation strategy against the pandemic. As we know, the rest was history. The pandemic is first and foremost our black elephant. It is not a black swan, it is a threat — one that has long signalled its imminent arrival and demanded a response from us. One that we knew all too well.
Other black elephants are roaming the world, casting their shadows over people, especially those in the most disaster-prone region — the Asia-Pacific. From 1970 – 2016, people in the Asia-Pacific region are 5 times more likely to experience natural disasters than people in other parts of the world, and disasters that can ambush us anytime (yet are left out of our everyday conversations or contingency plans) are surrounding us:
- Earthquakes: more than 140 million people in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and East India live in subduction zones, where devastating earthquakes are prone to occur. Yet building resilience and construction remain an underregulated area. Many residents have yet to break free from poverty. These societal conditions add an extra layer to vulnerabilities to natural disasters.
- Tsunami: located on the west of Luzon, the Philippines, the Manila Trench is feared for its potential to cause a Tsunami that sweeps across the South China sea, from Guangdong, Hong Kong, to Macau. There is a 20%-50% chance that the region will face a mega tsunami with 1000-metre height in the next decade.
- Storms: Tropical cyclones are a major threat to Vietnam, yet the country is still lacking in disaster preparedness. This could negatively affect the lives of its citizens.
- Drought: The Lower Mekong Region (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) are prone to drought, and this disaster is expected to cause socio-economic loss worth million dollars and can threaten the wellbeing of more than 60 million people in the region.
Given the circumstances, finding the right way to handle natural disasters is a must. For policymakers, here are our recommendations on how to put reins on these black elephants and counteract when they rear their heads.
- Stop pretending these risks are not real: a spade is a spade, and risks will always be risks — this is what policymakers have to admit aloud. The first step to deal with a black silhouette of future risks is to admit that their shadows are already casted over us. Admittance of truth allows us to be firmly grounded in reality and carefulness.
- Solutions and risks are always in the same frame: focusing on risks alone can make us extra anxious and burned out by the prospect of prevention and relief work. However, lessons from previous events of natural disasters are always within our reach — from policies, countermeasures, and other successful solutions. We can use these cases as a springboard for learning or blueprints for future adaptation.
- Just because it is not measured does not mean it does not exist: never forget that an index is important, but not everything. And sometimes our index does not consider every important aspect of a disaster. For example, we might be able to develop socio-economic metrics for disaster preparedness, but fail to address the psychological wellbeing of survivors. This could lead to ineffective disaster relief.
- To see the black elephant clearly, we need to look at it through the interdisciplinary lens: working in a pigeonhole of your organisation and the comfort of people whose lives parallel yours might result in a clouded vision of disaster risk. In order to see hazardous events in its entirety as well as develop the most effective disaster prevention and relief strategy, we need to employ an interdisciplinary approach to disaster prevention, reinforced by collective knowledge that people from different communities help cultivate.
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy