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Zeno’s Paradox offers lessons for managing the virus in Africa

A guest post by NGFP Fellow Alanna Markle

Cape Town billboard, by Discott. Via Wikimedia

In Zeno’s Achilles Paradox, Achilles races to reach a slower runner ahead, but never can. By the time he arrives, the runner has already moved to a new point. This continues in perpetuity because Achilles starts his runs by aiming for his opponent’s current destination, making no provisions for course correction. The paradox offers lessons for both COVID-19 and policy making generally:

1) we can never reach the projected futures we aim for because — like a spreading virus — they are always in motion; and

2) if we accept this limitation, we can increase the chances of arriving at a preferred outcome by also considering the infinite possibilities that lie outside of our projected futures.

COVID-19 reached the African continent last, giving leaders a chance to project their future in the fates of other nations. In response, like Achilles, most hurried to catch up to their peers in lockdown to prevent the darkest outcomes of the pandemic from becoming their reality. There is much to learn about the virus in Africa, but this early action is a likely reason that many countries still find themselves with lower infection rates than northern neighbours who were slower to respond.

Nevertheless, the spillover effects of this decision have already been profound, and as we move into the more complex stage of decision-making around managing life with the disease, decision-makers need to be selective in deciding whether to run toward policy options that emerge elsewhere. Though many uncertainties remain, here are some things to watch out for in charting courses for the continent.

Capacity is a hard constraint

Lack of capacity in Africa’s healthcare systems remains concerning. In mid-April, The New York Times reported that there were fewer than 2,000 working ventilators to serve hundreds of millions of people in 41 African countries. Given such enfeebled health systems, there remain any number of dystopian futures for Africa in this pandemic, especially when the virus reaches highly vulnerable areas like refugee camps and urban slums.

Testing was the first test

That developing testing capacity has put so much strain on wealthy countries begs the question of whether test-track-trace is achievable in middle- and low-income countries. While failures in the North offer some insight, time would be well spent understanding successful and innovative strategies that are being developed in the South.

Listen to the troubled silence

Formal reports of domestic violence have dropped along with mobility in many African countries. This likely obscures a truer picture of rising incidence, which has occurred under lockdowns around the world. Lack of data will hide realities that should be on our radars, and the weak signals we pick up should be interpreted through a gender and human rights lens.

Leverage existing strengths

Connection, communication and collaboration could be Africa’s greatest assets. While key infrastructure such as water and sanitation are sorely lacking in many places, the widespread uptake of mobile telephony means that the continent does have the ability to share to large volumes of information in real time.

Communication is central to containment, but good leadership makes the difference. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has institutionalised world-class knowledge on pandemic management and has been providing capable coordination and resourcing for a continent-wide response. The limited flow of external resources to help Africa with the COVID-19 crisis so far could be an ominous signal of declining interest or ability of the North to offer its support, and the effects on development could profound. Nevertheless, the impulse to first look inward for solutions is an encouraging sign for a more self-sustaining long-term future for the continent that could emerge from this pandemic.

Engage uncertainty

Finally, forecasting is indispensable to managing this crisis. However, the best decisions will also be informed by foresight. Foresight relies on more qualitative methods to sense and explore multiple, emerging futures, and expand and reframe the range of possible developments. It is well suited to dynamically explore uncertainties that underlie modelling assumptions and surround second- and third-order impacts. As Achilles’ story suggests, we will never reach the futures we model, and foresight offers the tools to see those that lie all around them.

Alanna Markle is an NGFP Fellow, currently based in London, who came to foresight through the Frederick S Pardee Center at the University of Denver. She previously worked on African futures and innovation for the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, and as a researcher for the Strategic Foresight programme in the Western Cape Government in Cape Town.




Not for profit practice using strategic foresight to help policy-makers, business leaders & communities make change for the better.

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Not for profit practice using #StrategicForesight to help policy-makers, business leaders & communities make change for the better.

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