Pandemic response: observations from a US perspective

Published: Friday, 11 December 2020 13:01

In an article written for Continuity Central in January 2020, Geary Sikich discussed the possibilities of the novel coronavirus developing into a pandemic and warned that organizations should plan for such. In a new article Geary makes some personal observations on the current state of pandemic response and discusses how what he terms as 'herd stupidity' has had an impact.

Recently I was watching the early morning news and there was a report on holiday travel being presented.  The reporter was at O’Hare airport in Chicago talking about all the holiday travelers at O’Hare.  This was on 21 November 2020, before the real holiday rush that we traditionally experience the day before Thanksgiving as so many hit the roads, airports, etc. to spend Thanksgiving with family and friends.  Amazing, even as we are deep into the 9th month of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the amount of disbelief about the severity of COVID-19.  All one has to do is watch the Thanksgiving travel out of O'Hare airport (Chicago) for examples of 'herd stupidity'.  Or get on LinkedIn and read some of the comments saying that COVID-19 is nothing more than the flu – like this one in response to a post by General Petraeus on an article in The Atlantic entitled ‘It’s Time to Hunker Down’: “It’s the flu general. The same flu that comes around every year via the free flu shot..”

Failure to learn from earlier threats and a declared pandemic

‘Herd stupidity’ can be defined thus:

“Resistance to, or flagrant disregard for the application of personal protective measures ordered or recommended by civil authorities designed to slow the spread of an infectious disease.”

We had over 10 years to prepare for this pandemic, first with a test run with H1N1 (2009 H1N1 Pandemic (H1N1pdm09 virus)).  WHO declared the H1N1 pandemic on 25 April 2009 and announced the end of the pandemic on 11 August 2010 (First outbreak: North America, Confirmed cases: 491,382 (lab-confirmed), Index case: Veracruz, Mexico, Suspected cases: 700 million to 1.4 billion (estimate), Number of deaths: 284,000).  The H1N1 virus that caused this pandemic is now a regular human flu virus and continues to circulate seasonally worldwide.  We have also had Ebola scares, MERS, MRSA and other viruses that have made some headlines.

When I wrote my book, ‘Protecting Your Business in a Pandemic’ in 2008, H5N1 was threatening to become a pandemic.  Many predicted it would be worse than the Spanish Flu.  I wrote an article on the ‘Potential Economic Impact of a Pandemic’ with a colleague in 2009 and gave several talks on the non-medical impact of a pandemic.  Over the years I have updated the original article.  Many who read the article and the updates told me I had predicted the crisis we face with COVID-19.  I cannot take credit for predicting; but I will say that many of the points made in the article have come to reality.  One surprise, which I attribute to technology, is that the cash shortage that I thought was going to manifest itself has not fully done so.  We have a coin shortage (USA), but most transactions are being conducted with credit/debit cards, auto-pay, etc.  So, I will say that I was only partially correct. My assumption being that not many would take credit cards for fear that the purchaser might die before they could pay for the merchandise. 

By the way, we were less prepared for the surge that we are experiencing today due to the lack of acceptance that the threat was real. And, when WHO declared the H1N1 pandemic, very little was done by the private sector or the public sector to actually implement the plans that had been prepared for H5N1.

When it comes to preparedness, one has to ask “What were we thinking”?  Unfortunately, preparations cost money and humans tend not to spend on things that fall into areas of probability that seem low risk.  I would say that this partially due to the human bias of discounting that which is not readily apparent as a threat.  We also have a tendency to not see what is transparent until it gets pointed out; even then discounting and failure to acknowledge are factors that impact any focus on preparation and prevention.

Are we overlooking the obvious?  We have seen inconsistent, incomprehensive decision making on the part of global leadership with the efforts to stem the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.  This has led to a lot of emotional finger pointing, loss of trust in our leaders at all levels and a general apathy toward the seriousness of the situation.  Leaders often appear to be wading in concrete, mired in confusion, implementing incomprehensive actions that often times do more harm than good.  The inconsistencies of leadership, at all levels, has led to frustration and, in some instances, refusal to comply with mandates that are controversial, ineffective, and are so unenforceable (easily circumvented) that they are rendered useless.

Conclusion

We live in a world full of consequences.  Our decisions need to be made with the most information available with the recognition that all decisions carry with them flaws due to our inability to know everything.  Our focus should be on how our flawed decisions establish a context for flawed behavior, leading to flawed actions, resulting in a flawed sense of “it’s not going to happen to me”.  If we change our thought processes from denial, conspiracy thinking, hoax believing and ignoring consequences to recognizing the limitations of decision making under uncertainty, we may find that the decisions we are making have more upside than downside.

The current situation, worldwide, is akin to a pressure cooker on boil with the relief valve stuck closed.  Will we see that valve open in 2021 with a reduction in pressure resulting from vaccinations or will we see the pressure continue to grow due to wrangling over stimulus plans, failure to address critical needs of those who are most impacted by the pandemic, continued resistance to abide by government mandates to wear masks, social distance and wash your hands?

A final thought; December 2020 has started as a bad month for those on the frontlines battling the pandemic.  Vaccines offer a glimmer of hope for better days to come.  However, human irresponsibility continues to plunge us deeper into the abyss.

The author

Geary Sikich: entrepreneur, consultant, author and business lecturer

Geary Sikich is a seasoned risk management professional who advises private and public sector executives to develop risk buffering strategies. With a M.Ed. in Counseling and Guidance, his focus is human capital: what people think, who they are, what they need and how they communicate. With over 30 years in management consulting as a trusted advisor, crisis manager, senior executive and educator, he brings unprecedented value to clients worldwide. Well-versed in contingency planning, risk management, human resource development, ‘war gaming,’ as well as competitive intelligence, issues analysis, global strategy and identification of transparent vulnerabilities. He has developed more than 4,000 plans and conducted over 4,500 simulations from tabletops to full scale integrated exercises. He began his career as an officer in the US Army after completing his BS in Criminology. As a thought leader, Geary leverages his skills in client attraction and the tools of LinkedIn, social media and publishing to help executives in decision analysis, strategy development and risk buffering. He is the author of over 475 published articles and four books, his latest being “Protecting Your Business in Pandemic,” published in June 2008 (available on Amazon.com).

Contact G.Sikich@att.net or gsikich@logicalmanagement.com

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