Management lessons from the covid-19 death spiral

An excellent article from Ed Yong1  begins like this:

Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. enters the sixth month of the pandemic with more than 6.3 million confirmed cases and more than 189,000 confirmed deaths. The toll has been enormous because the country presented the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with a smorgasbord of vulnerabilities to exploit. But the toll continues to be enormous—every day, the case count rises by around 40,000 and the death toll by around 800—because the country has consistently thought about the pandemic in the same unproductive ways.

The author then identifies nine errors that hamper our ability to respond to the pandemic. And one stands out to me because we discuss it often in my strategy workshops.

The most accurate model to date predicts that the U.S. will head into November with 220,000 confirmed deaths. More than 1,000 health-care workers have died. One in every 1,125 Black Americans has died, along with similarly disproportionate numbers of Indigenous people, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. And yet, a recent poll found that 57 percent of Republican voters and 33 percent of independents think the number of deaths is acceptable. “In order for us to mobilize around a social problem, we all have to agree that it’s a problem,” Lori Peek says. “It’s shocking that we haven’t, because you really would have thought that with a pandemic it would be easy.” This is the final and perhaps most costly intuitive error …

The first lesson is, of course, a refresher: Situations that require the coordination of all parties involved can only be solved by the participation of all parties involved. And that participation is best obtained when parties see and agree on the nature of the problem, rather than by means of executive fiat.

And the second lesson is the costly intuitive error: To think that because the situation is obvious to you it will be obvious to others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/09/pandemic-intuition-nightmare-spiral-winter/616204/, accessed 200911 []