WHO vs Norman, Yaneer and Taleb on travel restrictions and systemic risk, with a case study of Taiwan.


January 31, 2020 WHO made the following claim:

“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with intl. travel & trade. We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based & consistent. WHO stands ready to provide advice to any country that is considering which measures to take”-@DrTedros


Counter claim

Systemic Risk of Pandemic via Novel Pathogens –Coronavirus: A Note was posted on January 27, 2020 by Joseph Norman, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

In it the following relevant points are made:

1) The nature of the problem requires following the precautionary principle.

2) For ruin problems, traditional cost-benefit analyses do not apply.

3) Amongst other things, it is essential to drastically prune contact networks.

4) There will be a cost to lack of mobility, but the cost of failing to act will be worse.

5) Policy makers must act quickly and not succumb to the fallacy of being paralyzed due to uncertainty.

Many other relevant points are made, and the paper is short enough to read in its entirety.

Taiwan as a case study

A good case study for this is to study Taiwan’s response. Response to COVID-19 in TaiwanBig Data Analytics, New Technology, and Proactive Testing from March 3, 2020 provides a good summary. There is a supplementary document outlining what policies taken precisely when.

It shows how Taiwan acted early in line with the precautionary principle and made steps to reduce connectivity with impacted areas. For example:

Officials board and inspect passengers for fever or pneumonia symptoms on direct flights from Wuhan (Dec 31)

Entry permits canceled for 459 tourists from Wuhan set to arrive later in January (Jan 22)

Wuhan residents banned (Jan 23)

Tours to China suspended until Jan 31 (Jan 25)

As a result of this and other measures, Taiwan has fared better than almost any other nation so far in the Corona virus crisis. This despite, or perhaps because of, being one of the most connected countries to China.

Comments and verdict

The initial recommendation by WHO was wrong and dangerous. WHO, being responsible for international public health, failed to act in a responsible manner. Many countries listen to their policy advice, and this lead to the virus spreading more than it would have to.

For people who understand how to think about systemic risk, this was a known problem. WHO showcased a lack of understanding of such risks.

Countries that made an independent risk assessment, such as Taiwan, fared better.

This puts into question the ability of WHO to carry out their mission, as well as possibly their motives vis-a-vis protecting international public health.

No retraction has been published by WHO to the knowledge of this author.