Does it Qualify as a “Black Swan”?

A friend recently asked us whether the massive Ebola outbreak in West Africa could be regarded as a “black swan” in the sense of Nassim Taleb’s definition of the term. After thinking it over, we concluded that yes, it can definitely be characterized as one. Evidently, something is very different about this year’s outbreak compared to previous ones, and a number of unexpected developments have occurred. Chief among them is that a hitherto firmly held belief had to be abandoned. It was thought that the very thing that that makes the illness rather terrifying, namely its high mortality rate, helped in containing outbreaks.

We can definitely state that the current outbreak is anything but “well contained”. Below is a statistical table that shows all Ebola outbreaks since the discovery of the disease in 1976. Note that this graphic is already dated by now – the 2014 event has literally “gone off the chart” in the meantime. Even so, this graphic gives a good impression of how small the previous incidences of Ebola outbreaks were by comparison.


1-All outbreaksFrom a statistical viewpoint, the 2014 outbreak definitely must be regarded as a “black swan” – it was hitherto held to be impossible for the illness to propagate in such fashion (source:


Another way of looking at the “black swan” quality of the current outbreak is its geographical spread. All previous Ebola outbreaks were confined to a few isolated locations at most, mainly because they occurred in remote villages in the bush. As a result sick (and therefore infectious) people simply didn’t manage to reach any other villages to spread the virus further. Moreover, since also many of those who catch the illness quickly die, the virus was thought not to propagate very easily. Death is obviously the ultimate impediment to mobility (the dead do however remain infectious for quite some time).


2-Ebola, West AfricaGeographical distribution of Ebola in West Africa as of October 7 to 8, according to a recent WHO report – click to enlarge.


The fact that the outbreak already has “black swan” qualities makes it more likely that a few other strongly held beliefs could also turn out to be wrong. There is already an intense debate over how the virus actually moves from person to person. Given that it is present in sputum, a number of virologists have stated that if one were for instance bathed in a gentle spray of saliva emitted by a coughing and sneezing person that has been infected, one will probably catch it. In fact, a recent warning issued by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy is mainly noteworthy for its admission regarding the uncertainties about possible transmission vectors. It recommends that health care workers be fitted out with proper respirators to ward off infection via aerosol particles.

Before hearing about this, we remarked as follows in a recent email conversation: Even considering the low standards of hygiene and certain cultural idosyncracies that make it more likely for the disease to spread in African countries, it seems not as difficult to get infected as was generally held. One must also keep in mind that the official numbers almost certainly understate the number of infected people by a fairly big margin – many people reportedly get infected and simply die without ever making it into the statistics.

The progression of the outbreak shows that many hitherto widely accepted nostrums about Ebola and the likelihood of it spreading beyond a fairly small group of people have proved wrong. There is therefore possibly one more article of faith that may prove wrong as well, namely that there is no reason to worry that it could spread in developed countries.

What if it did? A graphic in the Washington Post seems to suggest that even in the developed world medical resources would be quickly overwhelmed. Obviously in West Africa, the situation is well beyond the “worrisome” stage by now.


3-ContainmentEbola containment – definitely not an easy task – click to enlarge.


One thing that is favorable from the point of view of citizens in developed countries is that the authorities are by now definitely on red alert. However, all it will take is one small slip-up and the genie will be out of the bottle.

Meanwhile, the projections for the expected progression of the outbreak in West Africa are positively horrifying. Below we show a number of recent statistics.


Ebola Outbreak, Statistics as of Early October 2014


4-ebola-data-10-oct-2014The number of known cases by now exceeds 8,300 – click to enlarge.


5-Ebola-with mortalityTotal cases versus mortality – the fatality rate is at approx. 48% so far. In this respect, some of the previous smaller outbreaks have been worse, but it is probably a good bet that if they had become similarly large, the fatality rate would have been similar as well – click to enlarge.


6-Ebola projectionThis projection shows – in light blue – what is going to happen over the next four weeks if no change in control efforts occurs. This projection was worked out with a healthmap model – you can look at the projections with improved control efforts as well as those with a deterioration in control efforts here (under the deterioration assumption, about 3,000 more cases would be recorded over the next four weeks than shown on the graph). As you can see, the disease seems likely to continue to spread in exponential fashion. However, the next chart suggests things may actually be slightly improving now – click to enlarge.


7-West_Africa_Ebola_2014_Reported_Cases_per_Week_TotalA small light at the end of the tunnel seems to be suggested by this chart, which shows that the number of cases reported weekly in West Africa is declining somewhat recently. While this is hopefully the result of mitigation efforts, it could also be due to the local authorities simply getting overwhelmed. One big problem is also that the disease has by now spread into the DCR and Nigeria. Although the number of cases there remains small so far, this is very worrisome given the population density in big cities like Lagos – click to enlarge.


8-diseases comparedThis statistic shows that in terms of deaths per day, Ebola continues to compare quite favorably to a whole host of other dieseases that receive a lot less attention – click to enlarge.


Considering the last chart above, one may well wonder why there is such a lot of attention paid to Ebola given that many other diseases are exacting a far greater death toll. The explanation is of course simply this: no other major disease has a comparable fatality rate that kills so many of the people it infects so quickly and in such a horrible manner (the symptoms of the disease are such that people suffer a great deal before they either recover or die). Moreover, Ebola is the only disease that is so far considered entirely untreatable (although promising experimental stage vaccines luckily exist already). Note here that only a close relative of the Ebola virus, the Marbug virus, has an even worse fatality rate.

Fuethermore, since the virus has now infected a great many human hosts, it may be mutating into something even more dangerous (there are a number of ways in which it could become more lethal, although as far as we are aware, major changes in how people can get infected are still deemed unlikely by experts).



Hopefully the outbreak in Africa can be brought under control soon and the negative surprises characterizing the epidemic are not going to be added to. In short, the black swan better not get any blacker.


9-Ebola_virus_virionA picture of the Ebola virion. The virus is unusually large and has a very typical shape.


slide_360751_4042552_freeHealth workers carrying a dead Ebola victim from a house in Monrovia

(Photo © dpa)



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8 Responses to “The Ebola Outbreak – A Black Swan”

  • Calculus:

    You can bet that’s coming No.6.

  • John Galt III:

    The government (ours) seems to be saying they want to control ebola at its source and a stoppage of all people with passports from these countries and those not from those countries but have visited them is not the way to control this. That to me is insane.

    Let’s take the opposite of what the government is saying and doing.

    1) So, let’s say 10,000 infected people get here? That is just dandy so long as the American Army is there trying to help? Are you kidding me?

    2) With an open southern border that Obama and the Democrats want to keep that way, what happens when ebola infected people cross the border. They won’t have their temperature checked by the border patrol or anyone else.

    IMHO, Obama and his lunatic administration want ebola here. No question about it. Or they are so wedded to their PC Marxist loony ideas that ebola gets here anyway but they feel “good” about their decisions.

  • Belmont Boy:

    Pater: I am most favorably disposed to your libertarian thinking. I have come to expect, when circumstances test the validity of libertarian principles, that you will respond to the challenge.

    This circumstance, it seems to me, presents a mammoth challenge to libertarian thinkers. Yet you blithely discuss it in terms of what centralized authorities can do. In terms of what, implicitly, they have a legitimate business doing, without wondering (in print at least) about whether they do have a legitimate business doing it.

    Now, I am not myself suggesting there is an alternative to governments taking charge, deploying military resources, forcing individuals into quarantine, and restricting travel. What I am saying is that I would expect you not to shy away from addressing the conflict between your own world view and this wider world reality.

    Incidentally, I asked you a couple of times in the past to discuss intellectual property rights (especially copyright and patent), which is another subject that presents a helluva lot tougher challenge to libertarian thinking than do those trusty old ducks-in-a-barrel commissars in the Eccles Building. You assured me you would get around to the topic, and I continue to look forward to your comments when you finally post them.

    But first, now and urgently: if there is a role for central planning and coercion in a public health crisis like this one, then what is that role, how do you circumscribe it, and how do you justify it?

    • Obviously, I merely discussed this from an ‘as is’ perspective and with respect to its “black swan” characteristics. I agree of course that the libertarian aspect is well worth discussing. Just in brief: do I believe a free market response would be preferable to state intervention? Definitely. In fact, the long years of misguided statism in the countries where the outbreaks have begun certainly have greatly contributed to the situation.
      By the way, I’m not ‘justifying’ anything in the above, even though I mention that now that the authorities are sufficiently alarmed, the danger of the disease spreading to developed countries is not as great as it would otherwise be. Again, I am merely looking at it from an ‘as is’ perspective – after all, the private sector is largely excluded by force from managing emergencies of this sort. This is not tantamount to agreeing to this situation. In fact, the one area in which the private sector is allowed to operate – the search for vaccines – is the one where the most promising developments are taking place.

      And yes, I still “owe” you the article on IP – I actually haven’t forgotten, it is mainly a matter of finding the time to write it.

      • Belmont Boy:

        Thanks for the comment, Pater.

        I look forward to your continuing discussion of this “black swan” as it plays out, straightforwardly addressing any conflicts there may be, or at least seem to be, between your principles and practical reality.

        And, as I wrote, I keep looking forward to a post by you on IP, to appear at your leisure (should you ever get to have any leisure) later on.

    • All-Your-Gold-Are-Mine:

      I would imagine that IF Libertarians were running things…. states would not be depending on BIG Centralized Government to do its thinking for them… that instead, they would be taking matters into their own hands and protecting their populace from infected people entering their states… competing companies from the private sector would do a great job screening such infected people… the small limited US government would simply ban flights and passengers that have originated from West Africa and other areas affected by the disease. Likewise, the state governments would reflect the will of its libertarian citizens… citizens that would pay competing private sector companies to do a thorough job of analyzing the problems and implementing the solutions…

      You are seeing the very opposite… a BIG Centralized Government under the direction of an incompetent, unqualified, fool… a former member of the “choom gang” where inhaling “roofers” was his specialty and claim to fame as a HS student… when people like me were hard at work studying, sacrificing, learning, developing my logic and reasoning skills / taking math and physics courses… competing with others on a level playing field… no affirmative action to help me along… no quota system implemented to assist me in my education and work endeavors (none available, none wanted nor would have been accepted)…. Of course this negatively impacted the skill level of the American educational system and work force ultimately resulting in a much larger gap between the lower and middle class (which led to class struggles and a greater segregation as we’re seeing across the nation)… Quota systems drive skilled labor away, resulting in bad economic growth, but that would be the subject of another discussion).

      So here we are with ObamaEbola…

      Here’s some irony… I graduated from George Washington Carver High School in Montgomery, Ala(f*cking)bama in 1975 after being forced to attend when they started bussing students that year to meet the integration requirement. The year before it was an all black populated school… we had old books, old desks, etc… but none of that mattered. Those of us that wanted to learn did the work… from a broken family, I had no parent pushing me to succeed… I made straight As and my physics project landed me in the NSF SSTP working with Professor Gerard O’Neill and a group of Marshall Space Flight Center scientists on his space colony endeavor… years later after a career as a military pilot, I taught mathematics at the most expensive private high school in America… Punahou, where spoiled “affirmative action” individuals like Obama were cutting class doing lines of coke and smoking bongs of pakalolo…

      I can tell you as a graduate of USAFA, none of my contemporaries have any respect for this so called Commander in Chief.

      Dealing with crisis starts on the local level and extends to the national level. Taking prudent, effective measures has no bearing on how large a centrally planned government is.

  • No6:

    I am still waiting for the climate fanatics to blame this outbreak on global warming.

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