Covid – 19 – a terrible enemy, but not a wicked problem. Wait for the real surprising challenge.

Every life lost to Covid-19 is a tragedy.  Physical and mental sufferings are carving deep wounds. Individual, corporate and national economies are in a free fall. And this will go on for some time, with different pace in different parts of the world. But, unfortunately, this is an easy problem, and still we are suffering too much. 

Few surprises 

Covid-19 has caused a pandemic which has very few surprising elements, if one does not count some political leaders’ statements. Epidemiologists, who are supposed to be on top of things, do not seem to be surprised. When calibrating the parameters of their models, the virus seems to behave as expected. There is a good fit between model estimates and empirical facts. Scientists are also very confident to have a vaccine available later in the year. They know perfectly well how to proceed. During long nights, the lights are on in many laboratories.  

Economists make predictions of the effects of lockdowns, and opening measures, stimulus packages, national debt etc. Although the outcomes of the work do not paint any bright picture, the professionals seem to be sure that they know what they are doing. And in the welfare sector, professionals are very clear about the negative consequences the pandemic, and all the restrictions superimposed on citizens will result in. From the kids in nurseries to the elderly in care homes, all will have wounds. Few seems to run into any bigger challenge understanding how this works.  

A wicked problem? 

Wicked problems are hard to solve as we mostly lack understanding of the complexity of the issue, knowledge can be incomplete or available information is contradictory. Many stakeholders and interconnected socio-economic systems are regular qualities of wicked problems. Solutions are never easy to find. But the corona epidemic, as indicated above, is not really a wicked problem. Policy makers know how to tackle it and know the price. If costs are too high, policies are fine-tuned and one accepts some more casualties, if moral and ethics allow for that. So, by the end of the day, it is an optimization problem, how cruel it ever may sound. Optimization of bad outcomes. Or less bluntly, it is about solving dilemmas. 

Why are we in this situation? 

How could we end up in this horrible situation if the problem is solvable? Instead of participating in the popular blame game, one has to understand how we perceive things happening around us, how we make judgement, what kind of heuristics is applied, what designs the option space we are applying looking for solutions. Think about the leaders that are responsible for our societies. Decision makers like good news. Our minds are geared to the positive. The seminal works of Kahneman and Tversky clearly show our bias towards the more positive outcomes in decision making. We do not properly perceive and interpret signals of unwanted developments. We discarded facts about Covid-19, interpreted the threat as a flue that will go over very quickly. Initial responses are often based on an automated judgement for fixing the known, although the problem has many unknown elements to the decision maker. Those who allow their system 2, in the Kahneman terminology, to help to understand the complexity, and all consequences of available options, might come to other decisions, than those how to handle a flu.  

A journey to the future, and back. 

Decision makers dealing with covid-19 have probably a very limited set of “memories of the future” applicable to what is happening now. They have had very few reasons to make the journey into alternative plausible futures shaped by different responses to and developments of pandemics. Accordingly, their judgment system is under severe stress to interpret signals and information, sort out conflicting views and align all the issues with their value system. Having been on a trip to the future, would probably make decision making less painful. 

For decades scenario planners have included pandemics in different scenarios. A proper use of scenarios also includes preparing for scenarios that are not welcome developments. It is a no-brainer to build up reserves of e.g. PPE. When we prepared the population for the nuclear war, everybody knew how to store supplies and find shelter. Now frontline personnel in many countries feel the consequences of decision makers not paying proper attention to pandemic scenarios. 

Covid-19 does cause tragedies. The number of too early fatalities will be too big. And every single death makes us feel sorrow. But, now we are fighting a virus which we know how to conquer. Wait until we will face a new threat, with properties that we do not understand. Before this wicked problem hits us, let’s engage in building scenario narratives that gets traction with decision makers. 


Mikael Paltschik
Senior Advisor
050 344 6953