In this post, I’d like to point out a few observations that have surprised me during the current pandemic.
Country behaviors. A pandemic may require responses that are more authoritarian than a society’s normal operations, and this in itself is a controversial topic. But if we accept it for the moment then what could be observed is two processes were at play in parallel in our universe: the official authorities e.g. the European Union, the British government the US Federal government at the top made announcements but it was lower-level authorities that were actually responsible for much of the day-to-day rules, and the inconsistent messaging kept confusing people. Furthermore, while there were a few acts of charity (like Romanian medical staff flying to Italy to help, or German hospitals taking in patients from France and Italy), overall people were quite country-focused. At the same time, each country’s population (and media) was keenly looking at others’ performance as a way to “benchmark” (for lack of a better term) one’s own government’s performance. This had become possible due to the Internet as a global communication enabler. Unlike a war, a pandemic attacks all of humanity in a globally connected world, so one would have hoped countries to work together to speed up the extinction of the disease.
Organizational behavior. Many companies finally switched to online work. This should have happened 15-20 years ago, but better late than never. A group of people that kept business with business flights to visit colleagues in the very same company that are just located on another continent to me has always been the biggest waste of money, at the same time creating huge environmental damage. It is refreshing how unproblematic this shift was, how quickly everything could be implemented (given that there was zero preparation), and how effective things have been running, at least in businesses that are suitable for online work. The losers were schools and government administrations: those nations talking about “one laptop per child” in developing countries were often unable to organize their own pupils. In London, the first architecture office with 50 staff has reportedly canceled their office lease, not because of financial struggles from the pandemic but responding to the insight that an office is not needed any longer (given the cost of London-based office space, that’s no surprise). I would not be surprised if in the future more companies were “mostly virtual”, with occasional meetings in physical spaces rented on demand by the hour or day to stay connected on a personal level. Companies will soon turn their attention towards recovery, and leave the pandemic memory behind. But there have been 60 pandemics from 2000-2020, so one would expect some kind of institutional learning to happen in advanced organizations (CMM level 5?).
People’s behavior. People’s personal believes and the degrees of adherence to official guidance (or mandatory rules) is interesting to observe. Generally, as is perhaps expected, earthlings are ill-equipped cognitively to deal with abstract concepts and tiny viruses invisible to the eye. So what happened is people started to take the pandemic more and more seriously as soon as someone in their personal environment was affected, but no sooner. Actual behavior often differed from projected behavior, as evidenced by various senior scientists, advisors, or ministers that were caught and reported in the media to be in violation of rules they themselves promoted. Different ethical value systems also shone through, e.g. whether trading lives against business losses was seriously being considered.
Scientist’s responses. Scientists disagree with each other, and that’s fine – at least when they among each other. What is not fine is to present only one view when communicating with external (non-scientist) audiences, as this creates a misconception of consensus. On the side of public health policies, I am stunned that no-one has forcibly argued for more alignment and standardization in the counting of the infected and dead across countries. If enough information is collected for each case, governments could easily tally up counts in more than one way, which renders invalid the argument that a particular standard would not meet a country’s internal requirements or not appropriately address its needs. Even more stunning is that no strong voices have been speaking out in favor of recurring, national/regional random sampling for CoViD-19 testing with the aim of getting an unbiased view of the pandemic’s spread. Instead, debates based on data-sets known to be heavily biased were fought, and attacked as invalid, but without attempting to implement proposals to fix it.
The source of the pandemic itself. The SARS-CoViD-2 virus and the pandemic it caused (CoViD-19) are remarkable in that the virus is not very deadly, at least in relative terms when compared e.g. to Ebola, yet it caused havoc at unanticipated scale. It turns out that one of the “success” factors of the little (30 kB of information) coronavirus is exactly that it does not kill people quickly, but lets them pass on the disease to many other individuals before symptoms get very strong.