Behavioural neuroscience and leadership decision-making is our core expertise – and sad to say it is easy to see (and predict) why many governments couldn’t avoid the obvious and predictable?
I say obvious because we saw this developing in China – we knew it was coming – and then wham we’re locked in or quarantined and watching the infections and death rates rise exponentially. Wait a sec – just how did we miss this?
Pandemics are tragic – they also highlight some of the best and worst of human behaviours – and tragically our inability to see some obvious things. So just how did we let the obvious jump us?
Well understanding human behaviour, there are a few critical points – obviously governments and their leaders take a fair proportion of the blame – but then again so do we because if we fail to follow orders, or loudly protest harsh measures, we are part of the problem also.
…here in the wealthy west we have little recent experience of pandemics. We have had swine flu but that wasn’t a real crisis for us. MERS and SARS were things that happened in other places. Ebola sounded tragic but was far away and didn’t affect us. This sounds heartless but it is simple human nature – stuff that affects us at home is more important – simple. We haven’t had a deadly pandemic in most people’s living memory.
So, first off, lack of experience means lack of realisation and lack of ability to understand the seriousness.
And to be clear pandemic risk has been on the list of largest global risks for many years – in fact that is why we caught this so early and deaths are relatively low (compared to what they could have been).
…the brain is bad at exponentiality. There are many examples of this one: would you prefer a million dollars today or a cent doubled every day or a month?
The second option is, in fact, much better – really much better.
A cent doubled a day gives you over $21 million in a 31-day month over $10m in a 30-day month and even a 28-day February about $2.5m. Our brain is just not good at predicting this. 10 people infected with COVID-19 feels unthreatening and drastic measures would be a massive, massive over reaction – but suddenly that is 10’000 and still growing exponentially. Bang you’ve been hit. The drastic measures are now even more drastic, and more damaging, and will last longer. And a lot more people will die.
…we’re bad at calculating reality (in the case of COVID-19, particularly). We then do focus on the figures, but the figures aren’t the reality. One death today means that on average about 100 people were walking around infected 2 weeks ago with COVID-19! Each of those will infect on average 2-3 other people – exponential growth as outlined above. If your country has done nothing, then that means you have had two weeks of unfettered exponential infection rates. We now know that many of these will not show symptoms and that it takes on average 5 days for symptoms to appear. By the time someone shows symptoms they have potentially been infecting people for five days – in some this is up to 14 days. Worrying. By the time you start to get really worried, it’s too late.
… we don’t want to rock the boat – drastic measures are, well, drastic. In the case of an approaching pandemic (without any experiences or realisation what this means) they sound like overreactions – they feel like overreactions – there will be a lot of collateral damage. So, we enter into denial or failure to realise the truth. Many leaders initially downplayed this: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro. They missed the obvious and avoidable. Sadly, their countries and citizens will pay the price.
…we’re bad at systemic thinking – we’ve probably heard someone say: “Everyone will get sick and then we’ll get back to work. What’s the problem!”
We fail to realise what everybody getting sick means: critical services can no longer be delivered, hospitals don’t have enough beds, their staff are sick (or dead), they can’t be manned for any services, the police have the same problem, the armed forces also, as do electricity works, garbage collections, and sewage works, not to mention food supply chains. It all goes down the chute. We risk a disastrous collapse of functioning society and related deaths. Doomsday scenarios potentially – even the best case is really, really bad. Simply put, we fail to see how everyone getting sick impacts the system. Trust me you don’t want that.
So the avoidable is here and wreaking havoc
So, there we are – we saw the obvious coming. We knew what was coming but we still failed to stop it. Next time we probably won’t make the same mistake (and there will be a next time) because of the experiences of this time. And some countries have shown how it can be done without causing chaos and keeping more or less open for business. But for now, for most of us, that’s not much consolation.