Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

After his interview with Elephant in the Lab on 22 March 2020, Wander Jager develops his thoughts on the time after the COVID-19 pandemic

As I’m writing this, on Easter 2020, the big wave of COVID-19 infections spreads as a slow-motion tsunami over our planet, wreaking havoc in many families, communities and businesses all over the world. Knowing a thing or two about contagion dynamics, I started following this pandemic when there were still just 881 confirmed cases in Wuhan, hoping, or actually expecting an adequate response. If I, being a non-expert social scientist, was alert about this outbreak, sure the experts responsible for preparing for and responding to a pandemic must be on top of this outbreak in Wuhan. Especially because more than a decade ago publications already prepared us for this scenario.

I was proven wrong. Over time I was increasingly wavering between astonishment and anger on how the authorities responded to the corona-virus spreading over Europe. The healthcare authorities first declared that the chances were slim that the virus would reach Europe, it wouldn’t be that contagious, and whilst the virus was hitting hard in Lombardy, where many Dutch people went skiing, there was no action taken to prevent people from contaminating each other during the subsequent carnival in the South of the Netherlands. When the number of Dutch cases was surging, the Dutch authorities returned a large delivery of masks because they didn’t comply to the norms, it became clear to me: the bureaucrats lost control. The fainting of the soon-to-be ex-minister of public health when interrogated about the failing approach in the parliament was a clear signal that their procedural thinking didn’t stood up against the complex dynamics of the problem at hand. They lost control.

Returning this delivery of masks because they don’t comply to the norms might be a good action in stable times, in a pandemic you need to improvise with what you got…even if this is too little and too late. Improvisation, and adapting to the situation at hand using whatever you have available is usually smarter than following the much slower procedures developed for stable situations. When your house is on fire, you don’t mind too much about the expiration date of the only fire extinguished you have at hand. You try to stop the fire. Get sand from the garden, pour a bottle of soda, whatever seems to be working you will use to extinguish the fire. When crisis befalls upon us, it is time to act, and best is to act upon a plan. For a fire emergency drills are a good preparation, but preparing for a complex pandemic requires anticipating for surprises…thus having the adaptive capacity for developing quick improvised solutions on the basis of incomplete information and smart interdisciplinary thinking.

Improvisation and adaptation are not the strongest capacities of procedural driven institutions. Procedures are good in stable situations, where processes can almost be understood as machines. Data make it possible to predict what we need. But a pandemic is a disruption into a stable dynamic process, it creates shocks in systems that echo through into other systems. The most automated logistics systems in retail lacked improvisation skills, resulting in shortages in the supermarkets, whilst actual stocks were sufficient further down the line. No wonder that it was toilet paper, a product in stable demand and very voluminous, where the just-in-time logistics failed. Pictures on social media of empty shelves further fueled the hoarding behavior.

The COVID-19 shock in our societal eco-system is large, larger than most of us initially expected, and whilst the air is cleaning, many sectors of the economy are suffering. Where some people are extremely busy, and try to keep things running on-line, others find themselves having nothing to do but to wait for better times, fearing for their jobs and future. The cascading effects of this crisis are difficult to see, and many competing scenarios of possible futures are being shared in the media and discussed. All kinds of negative and positive possible developments are fighting for attention, and there is surely no shortage of experts willing to share their often-contrasting views on our future.

This plethora of perspectives may cause fear and hope to battle in our minds. What will the future bring? Is this the beginning of a deep global crisis? Will we return to normal? Do we want to return to normal or is this an opportunity to change? Is this pandemic a signal that the state of our society has grown into a condition that was close to a tipping point?

People respond differently to this crisis, depending on their nature and perception. Many people will hope we return to “normal”, because that is what they are used to, a known past. Uncomfortable information about possible fundamental changes can be neglected, and a hope can be vested in strong leadership bringing us back to normal. We see the increased trust in the existing leadership everywhere, no matter how irresponsive they behaved during this crisis. When leaders take away uncertainty, many people feel comforted. More pessimistic and sceptic people may develop dystopian ideas, and conspiracy theories find a fertile ground to flourish. Optimistic and naïve people dream of the COVID-19 crisis supporting a revolution towards a better and more sustainable world, sometimes even thanking the virus, or considering it as a sort of punishment by mother nature for our greedy behavior.

In my perception as a social complexity researcher, this wide variety in perceptions and actions is bringing an essential complexity layer to the question of how to deal with this situation. Obviously, I don’t have an answer to this question, and anyone who claims to have the answer should be approached with a good sense of skepticism. Uncertainty is a fundamental characteristic of complex systems, and a crisis confronts us with many alternative scenarios for the future. But we can learn to cope with this uncertainty looking at our common history. How did people respond to serious disruptions in the past? How did societies respond to plagues, famines and floods? What institutions did they build to make society resilient? How important is the community spirit in dealing with disruptions? In the current COVID-19 pandemic we can see that Eastern countries responded faster to the pandemic than most Western countries, despite the latter had a longer time to prepare for this pandemic. This raises the question of what values make us more resilient in the current crisis, and in possible future crises?

In a crisis it is always tempting to think in terms of going back to normal, but our “normal” was already becoming quite problematic. So, it becomes important to bring people together from different parts of society in developing scenarios for possible futures. The key question here is: What if we don’t go back to normal? Creative thinking, supported by knowledge from a wide variety of experienced people is needed to think through how “not-to-go-back-to-normal”.

As an example, what if the airline industry doesn’t go back to normal, and many airliners go bankrupt? Could we support the airliner industry to go out of aviation, and perhaps into shipping? Cruise ships, being the slow and luxurious transportation of many rich elderly people, are now considered being corona hot-spots, and may go out of regular business too. However, I’d rather cross the ocean in a secure private cabin than in an airplane these days. And assuming that we need to be careful with travelling, having a longer trip over sea serves as a sort of new quarantine before entering another continent, contributing to a virus controlling global network. Demands for transport may be much lower, as we quickly learn to adopt to an effective on-line culture. To think through such a “not-back-to-normal” scenario would benefit from open discussions between many people from different background and places on Earth. And many ideas on “not-back-to normal” will be developed, and possibly support each other. Interdisciplinary collaboration is a key, and the simulation of artificial societies certainly will help us further in systematically exploring how our society might evolve. But foremost it is imagining the desired destinations of our spaceship earth that helps us finding course directions.

Imagine it is Easter 2021. We think of the times a year ago, remembering the pandemic hitting us everywhere, and the problems we still have controlling it. Initially we felt a sort of global community spirit, helping each other out locally where we could. Vital services in our society kept running in many places, but in some places collapsed. Differences became visible between countries, cultures and climates. Fast information of varying quality became important, community-based adaptations developed.

Easter 2021 we will probably not shake hands. Maybe we have learned that turbulent times require adaptive responses. Plan for the unplannable. Resilience might be found where communities work together, where smart ideas and good experiences are shared. I hope we developed a bravery to go to an unknown future, but with good hope, like our exploring ancestors. Most of all I hope COVID-19 contributed to the spirit of team Earth.

Wishing you a good Easter in 2021


Wander Jager