Why the Covid-19 Pandemic is a Formidably Complex Crisis

Howard Gross
Sep 8, 2020 · 8 min read

by Howard Gross

This is the first in a series of pieces on understanding complexity

Back in 2000, the late English physicist Stephen Hawking called this the “century of complexity.” Myriad events since then have proven him right; most recently in spades. Not since the one-two punch of the Great Depression and the Second World War pummeled the entire planet have so many lives been universally upended. Which is why when researchers at Harvard University asked 600 CEOs across various global industries what kept them up at night, one overarching concern was being able to “comprehend complex, rapidly changing circumstances accurately.”

The coronavirus pandemic is more than a mere crisis. It is, instead, a formidably complex problem that is difficult to understand and even harder to solve. This is because it is essentially a consequence of unparalleled predicaments in highly volatile environments where unforeseen outcomes constantly emerge. If individuals and organizations hope to manage this emergency, and the disruptions that are sure to follow, they must first make sense of them, and a good way to start is to recognize that such problems share the following characteristics.

Interdependence

If there is one quality common to all complex problems, it is that they comprise multiple disparate elements that are intricately interconnected. Nowhere is this more evident than in the perfect storm now ravaging the globe. A viral pandemic has precipitated economic calamity amid a chronic social struggle.

Were these the only matters of distress they would be worrisome enough. But they also cloud a host of related yet less apparent troubles. In a concentrated effort to combat the coronavirus and slow its spread, cities, states and nations have all but abandoned those with serious non-Covid diseases, resulting in thousands of possibly preventable deaths. Likewise, the United Nations warns that the psychological impact of the disease and forced isolation may engender a worldwide mental health epidemic, which is already afflicting one in three Americans. The pandemic has also taken a toll on working women, as more of them have lost jobs since the outbreak than have men.

Even the few upsides are turning sour. Early in the pandemic, much of the world enjoyed cleaner air as lockdown policies restricted human activity. But air pollution is returning to pre-Covid levels. Moreover, a study out of the University of Chicago found that poverty in the United States fell during April and May due to federal relief benefits; though the number of families who can’t afford food has risen since those programs expired.

Each of these outcomes depends on how elements interact and influence one other. But many of the current issues have ill-defined boundaries, making it tough to isolate, identify, and analyze them. What is more, complex problems cannot be fully understood by studying the individual components since their interactions can create surprisingly different phenomena. This is known as emergence and it is indeed the case with the virus, which is itself the product of ever-changing environmental and virologic factors that can spawn new variations.

Nonlinearity

As tricky it is to determine how distinct events interplay under variable conditions, it can be just as bewildering to gauge how rapidly that transpires. Like most complex problems, the pandemic is nonlinear and subject to exponential growth. “The problem with exponential growth,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told CBS News, “is everything looks okay until suddenly it doesn’t.”

What may first appear as minor and inconsequential can quickly become big and burdensome. Thus, small differences at the beginning of an exponential expansion can quickly lead to massive changes. Take a penny one day, two the next, four the day after that and so on, and you will have more than five million dollars by the end of a month.

People infecting other people works the same way, which is why so few envisioned that a pathogen emanating from a city in China would take root in a toxic political climate in America with such destructive results. In April, Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed hope that no more than 60,000 people would die of the disease. Not long after, authorities at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) upped the number to 70,000 by August. The IHME now projects more than 400,000 lives may be lost by the new year. Sadly, according to research at Columbia University, had the United States begun practicing social distancing just two weeks earlier than it did, more than 80 percent of deaths might have been avoided.

Still, it is not just the uncontrollable acceleration of Covid-19 that is causing this devastation, but also the viral spread of lies people tell about it. A study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene suggests that this misinformation may account for hundreds of additional casualties.

Controversy

Admittedly then, it is difficult to initially recognize an overly complex problem or to reckon the degree to which it can expand. Even more so when people disagree. This is especially true when they are exposed to overwhelming amounts of conflicting information. Consequently, they tend to focus on specific factors, while the full extent of the issue remains beyond their grasp.

It is akin to the ancient parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, where several sightless wanderers come upon the animal for the first time. Trying to determine what it is, each touches a separate part of the creature, such as the trunk, tail, or torso. But not only do their discrepant perspectives lead them to quarrel, they fail to correctly identify the beast.

These days the coronavirus is the daunting elephant in the room, and the visually impaired include politicians, pundits, and members of the public blinded by partisanship; few of whom have the capacity or inclination to completely realize the situation. According to the Pew Research Center, for example, Republicans and Democrats sharply disagree over the seriousness of troubles confronting the nation. Like their fabled counterparts they frame issues in ways they see as exclusively correct; and it doesn’t help when government restricts access to vital facts and data, as incomplete information drives people to fill the void with rumors, lies, and conspiracy theories.

Uncertainty

Although interdependence, nonlinearity, and controversy are pitfalls in the present, the path forward is also mined with uncertainty. The World Pandemic Uncertainty Index (WPUI) — a sub-index of the World Uncertainty Index — is already at the highest level ever recorded, and may well grow in an environment of lower growth and extreme financial conditions.

But Duncan Watts, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in the use of data to study social networks, writes there is a difference between being uncertain about the future and the future being uncertain.

The former implies ignorance — the lack of adequate knowledge — which is seriously complicated by cascading events and a persistent torrent of new information. Deborah Netburn, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, admitted as much back in April in an article on the effects of the coronavirus, where she wrote:

One thing to keep in mind before we continue: It is possible that the information you read below will be contradicted in the coming weeks or that gaps in knowledge today will soon be filled as scientists continue to study the virus.”

The solution here is to learn, in this case, perpetually. This is impractical, however, with an uncertain future since it is ostensibly unknowable. The notion of unknown unknowns, conceived by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham (and infamously plagiarized by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld), describes situations that are all but impossible to predict or plan for. One reason is a lack of available examples on which to base decisions. As JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon recently told investors: “the word unprecedented is rarely used properly, this time, [it] is being used properly. It’s unprecedented what’s going on around the world, and I would say Covid itself is a main attribute.”

Yet even when reliable indications do exist, they may be spurned. Long before coronavirus invaded American shores, Bill Gates, Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy each warned of the inevitability of coming pandemics. Nonetheless, in the initial days of Covid-19, prominent news media such as the New York Times and Washington Post marginalized the threat.

Framework for the Future

By now most people have come to grips with the gravitas of their plight. In the span of just a few months complexity has vaulted from an arcane concept to a cold hard fact of life, a life that for many will doubtless change. To what extent it will, no one yet knows. Whether it will be for better or worse is largely a matter of perspective. Accordingly, reactions will vary.

When abruptly thrust from their comfort zones, people succumb to sundry degrees of unease. Little wonder anxiety-related internet searches have spiked during the pandemic. Some people dig in their heels and cling to what has served well them in the past, pushing hard to get back to some fanciful normal and against practical solutions like masks and social distancing. At the other extreme are those who strive to hasten change despite the magnitude of conflict and uncertainty.

In between are persons who modify attitudes and behaviors in response to rapidly changing circumstances. They accept that a complex world is neither predictable nor controllable, and develop adaptable frameworks — as opposed to preset templates or codified practices — that allow to them to continually adjust their decisions, strategies, or objectives based on feedback. Such frameworks are generally open-ended, though, like the problems they are designed to solve, they also incorporate their own common characteristics.

Inclusive: regularly aggregate facts, ideas, and opinions from across a broad range of branches of knowledge to look beyond the obvious and identify all possible causes of a problem; all potential consequences; and the multiple connections among them.

Comprehensive: examine complex problems in broad context by considering relationship between elements and not simply the elements themselves.

Open-Minded: entertain, and not constrain, the possibility of something new, different, or unexpected no matter how seemingly incongruent.

Empathic: attempt to see others as they see themselves to better appreciate and address their needs, interests, and concerns.

Discerning: carefully weigh the accuracy of information and the logic of ideas by recognizing the importance of detail while also stepping back to observe an issue in its entirety.

Articulate: work across the full spectrum of communication systems and processes to present information and ideas cogently and comprehensively so they may be more easily accepted and effectively applied.

Flexible: respect that as soon as a plan is applied to the environment it will affect that environment — and be affected in return — generating new factors, objectives, and obstacles.

Self-Critical: acknowledge one’s own beliefs and biases, and be willing to own and learn from mistakes and failures.

Plus, the success of frameworks relies, not on fixed procedures and anticipated outcomes, but on the evolving insights that arise from the perpetual give-and-take between enterprises and their stakeholders.

Granted, not all crises are overly complex. Nor do all complex problems result in crises. But confronted with challenges like climate change, inequality, racism, populism, and possibly more pandemics, not to mention any number of unanticipated shocks, thoroughly comprehending complexity is incumbent on all individuals and organizations who hope to successfully manage them.