As coronavirus makes its way into London where I live, I am struck by a number of things about how we as a society are responding, both at the individual level and at the level of government. What strikes me most is what I feel to be both a lack of rigour and a lack of compassion around the truth of an unfolding reality.
It is important to understand the difference between something that multiplies quickly without intervention and something that does not. Starting with an initial number X, say 100 infected people, we can easily go to 0.5 million infections in 3 weeks based on a 1.5x no-intervention daily multiplier (as the data from China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, show). The math: 100 x (1.5^21) = ~0.5 million.
So, based on estimated mortality rates of 3%, we could have ~15,000 lives lost in 3 weeks with no intervention.
There are already signs that our hospitals and critical services are overwhelmed as it is. And, we must consider the knock-on effects on those already needing hospital care unrelated to Coronavirus.
With rapid intervention, it IS possible to contain a multiplicative process (See Figure 1).
Figure 1 Source: Yaneer Bar-Yam @yaneerbaryam, New England Complex Systems Institute
Swift action with compassion
Acting swiftly does not mean it has to be harsh! We can act decisively and with real compassion. The two are not mutually exclusive. Government taking swift measures to limit movement and mass gatherings MUST be coupled with care for those most likely to be impacted by these.
For example, some freelancers and those on zero-hour contracts may not be financially capable of surviving even a brief quarantine process without working. And, it is essential that government act quickly to support those of us in this position at a time of crisis. Swift action and compassion must also be matched with clear communication. With proper leadership and open communication, I see no reason why we as a community cannot come together to contain this quickly.
Some worry that swift action = panic. This is conflating things. We can take strict action very calmly. It is unpreparedness that creates panic when/if things get out of hand later.
As it stands, I am struggling to understand why the UK Government is doing nothing and additionally delaying sharing infection location data!
For those who think swift action is “over-reacting”, I invite you to consider that it is better to mistake a rope to be a snake 9 times out of 10 (false positive) and take precautionary action, than to mistake a snake for a rope even just once. This is a core part of our evolutionary instincts that has allowed us to endure as a species. The old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ comes to mind.
It is statistically incorrect to compare Coronavirus to the common flu and deaths from events such as car-accidents. Firstly, there is a class of events that are non-multiplicative and uncorrelated across the population (e.g. car accidents, falls from ladders). Coronavirus is multiplicative.
Secondly, remember that the common flu is already at scale and has a lower known infection and mortality rate. So, if Coronavirus is allowed to run its course without intervention, we could have huge numbers of hospital admissions and fatalities over time. And, because of the uncertainty regarding the numbers, the rates could even be much higher (or lower) as the virus runs its course. We can’t be sure yet.
It is precisely the uncertainty and the risk of multiplication that we observe that calls for precautionary action. It’s a bit like taking care of the planet. Because we don’t know and because the consequences could be dire, we should do everything in our power to contain a pandemic (with coronavirus) or a disastrous environmental tipping point (with climate change)*.
Small actions have a big effect
When dealing with multiplicative dynamics, even a small action of removing yourself from unnecessary social interactions can have a large impact on slowing an exponential rate of contagion. So, even if the government has not instructed us yet, there is a merit to self-quarantining where possible. Of course, this only starts to have a significant social impact through coordinated action. (Why is the government not acting!)
Why are some governments slow to act?
In 1963, The UK Foreign Secretary, Henry Kissinger described something he called “the problem of conjecture ”. The conjecture problem arises as follows: When a decision maker “acts on the basis of a guess, he will never be able to prove that his effort was necessary, but he may save himself a great deal of grief later on…If he waits, he may be lucky or he may be unlucky.”
So, if a government acts swiftly to stem a pandemic, they may actually be blamed for “over-reacting” 6 months from now as our vacuous media pounce on something to write about! Many of us too might forget the precautionary nature of action and blame the decision maker in retrospect. We have to remember the quality of decisions has to be judged based on information AT THE TIME of the event, not in hindsight.
Another thing that the Coronavirus contagion highlights is just how fragile our super-connected global systems are. There are certainly benefits to interconnectedness, but as the current situation is showing, it comes with large costs. Perhaps, now is the time to re-think our global supply chains for essential vs. non-essential products and how we allocate decision making powers to local and central government and where the associated decision making incentives and bottlenecks lie.
Whatever the long-term decisions around global systems may be, there is a case for swift and compassionate action to contain the virus now before it is too late. And, if the government seems unwilling to act, perhaps we can do our bit as citizens to the best of our abilities and with compassion for one another.
1. Joseph Norman, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Systemic risk of pandemic via novel pathogens – Coronavirus: A note, New England Complex Systems Institute, January 26, 2020
2. Shen, C and Bar-Yam, Y., First thoughts on Superspreader events, New England Complex Systems Institute, 28 February 2020
*3. Taleb, N. N., Read, R., Douady, R., Norman, J. and Bar-Yam, Y.,, The Precautionary Principle, 2014
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it.