SARS-CoV‑2 — How to manage the Coronavirus Crisis

Com­plex sys­tems, cor­po­ra­tions, economies, organ­isms, or ecosys­tems, tend to become ever more com­plex. Due to a mul­ti­tude of depen­den­cies, com­pe­ti­tion, rela­tion­ships, and other types of inter­ac­tions between their parts, and dis­tinct prop­er­ties, s.a. non­lin­ear­i­ty, emer­gence, spon­ta­neous order, adap­tion, and feed­back loops, com­plex sys­tems are dif­fi­cult to model. The Coro­n­avirus SARS-CoV‑2 is an exoge­nous shock to our ecosys­tem. How to man­age the Coro­n­avirus cri­sis to make the world a bet­ter place? Besides read­ing this post I strong­ly rec­om­mend Paolo Gior­dano — How Con­ta­gion Works — it‘s a very good read writ­ten with­in 3 weeks.

In a nor­mal envi­ron­ment, sys­tems become more com­plex due to a grow­ing num­ber of par­tic­i­pants, new aggre­ga­tions and cat­e­gories of enti­ties, and typ­i­cal sys­temic chal­lenges result­ing from the mis­use of struc­tures and process­es with­in the sys­tem. From with­in, no sys­tem has ever tend­ed to less com­plex­i­ty. His­to­ry has shown that exoge­nous shocks, s.a. wars, rev­o­lu­tions, nat­ur­al cat­a­stro­phes, etc. were the only cat­e­go­ry of events that could trig­ger a com­plex sys­tem to either col­lapse or shrink to their core val­ues in order to be re-built with­out regard to lega­cy ele­ments, cre­at­ed in a com­plete­ly new and bet­ter way.

One exoge­nous shock of that cat­e­go­ry is the Coro­na pan­dem­ic. Com­pa­ra­ble to a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter, s.a. an earth­quake or Tsuna­mi, it caught the world on the wrong foot. Although many coun­tries are quite well orga­nized, run elab­o­rat­ed health sys­tems, and have plen­ty of expe­ri­ence with virus out­breaks like SARS, or Ebola, nobody was geared up to the needs of a pan­dem­ic spread­ing with a speed like the Coronavirus.

As a nat­ur­al accom­pa­ni­ment to any major event, lots of experts jump in with their expla­na­tions, opin­ions, and crit­i­cism of those who are try­ing to han­dle the sit­u­a­tion. In Ger­many, the proverb of being a coun­try with 80 mil­lion soc­cer coach­es (stem­ming from the pro­found exper­tise every­body seems to have when it come to how to win a soc­cer match) has already been changed into “80 mil­lion virol­o­gists” who con­sult the Ger­man gov­ern­ment, and, of course, any­body else, in the “only cor­rect way” to han­dle the crisis.

The Media

Torn between fake news, and the need to sell more online sub­scrip­tions, Ger­man media, which has been strug­gling with find­ing its eco­nom­ic way out of declin­ing news­pa­per and mag­a­zine rev­enues, is try­ing its best to some­how eval­u­ate what’s hap­pen­ing. Maybe it’s due to the Ger­man „Angst“-DNA, even seri­ous papers often lack sub­stan­ti­at­ed research and argu­men­ta­tion, when declar­ing that after Coro­na noth­ing would be the same, that Coro­na proved our eco­nom­ic sys­tem as defunct, and so forth. The usual naysay­ers and prophets of doom and gloom have entered the stage to declare the end of cap­i­tal­ism, human­ism, democ­ra­cy, and every­thing else. So-called futur­ol­o­gists, who have lived in the shad­ow in recent years, are offered spots on the first page or in TV shows to present them­selves and their lofty opin­ions. While under nor­mal cir­cum­stances nobody lis­tens to the types, it seems to be out of place to ampli­fy their voic­es in times like these.

Wise Peo­ple

The Coro­na cri­sis is a severe chal­lenge for our soci­ety. Locat­ed in Ger­many, faced with exit restric­tions, but not a com­plete cur­few, we are much better-off than e.g. our Ital­ian friends who expe­ri­ence the worst times since WWII. How­ev­er, in all demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­tries, and even in many auto­crat­ic ones, most peo­ple are behav­ing in a calm and pru­dent way. There is no panic at all, and even panic buy­ing seems to be most­ly hap­pen­ing in the media, where­as e.g. in Munich, every­body is shop­ping pru­dent­ly, being high­ly sen­si­tive regard­ing social dis­tanc­ing, and sup­port­ing each other — many peo­ple vol­un­teer to do the gro­ceries for the elder­ly, etc.

Wise Gov­ern­ments

Our gov­ern­ments, on the nation­al level as well as on the fed­er­al level, have demon­strat­ed a clear and deter­mined will to sup­port Ger­man cit­i­zens not only regard­ing health aspects but also regard­ing eco­nom­ic and social aspects. Beside uncon­di­tion­al finan­cial sup­port, gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives are doing a fan­tas­tic job explain­ing the neces­si­ty of exit lim­i­ta­tions, result­ing in a lim­it­ed lock-down — which, of course, is far from being a free democrat‘s dream. Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel made it very clear, that we are mov­ing on a fine line between nec­es­sary, live-saving restric­tions and oth­er­wise uncon­di­tion­al free­dom of move­ment. My feel­ing is, that an over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of Ger­mans know exact­ly what is at stake and accord­ing­ly com­ply with these quite excep­tion­al limitations.

Wise Busi­ness­es

A rel­e­vant share of Germany‘s econ­o­my depends on car man­u­fac­tur­ers. While this indus­try recent­ly has come under pres­sure due to the cli­mate cri­sis and strate­gic mis­man­age­ment, it has com­plete­ly stalled for the time being. Togeth­er with the gov­ern­ment, busi­ness lead­ers have dis­cussed their options — and beside the typ­i­cal call for a bailout, some of them have come up with ideas of adapt­ing their pro­duc­tion lines from car com­po­nents to health com­po­nents. Of course, you can‘t trans­form VW into a health com­pa­ny, but you can think out­side the box and cre­ate new oppor­tu­ni­ties with exist­ing means of production.

Lever­ag­ing Points — Loca­tions For Small Changes In A Com­plex System

Maybe, the Coro­n­avirus helps to sim­pli­fy and man­age our com­plex ecosys­tem. There are hun­dreds of exam­ples of sim­pli­fi­ca­tions: from fast-track aid, to pro­duc­tion line switch­es to sup­port for the neigh­bors. Maybe, Coro­na illus­trates that we as a soci­ety have more impor­tant chal­lenges and tasks to solve than many of those we typ­i­cal­ly deal with. Per­haps this cri­sis serves as a les­son in pri­or­i­ti­za­tion. From sys­tem analy­sis, we know that in com­plex sys­tems there are so-called lever­age points: places where a small shift in one thing can pro­duce big changes in every­thing. Peo­ple typ­i­cal­ly know intu­itive­ly where lever­age points are. The only prob­lem — it‘s a back­ward intu­ition: com­plex sys­tems are coun­ter­in­tu­itive; i.e. either lever­age points are not intu­itive, or, if they are, we intu­itive­ly use them back­ward, sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly wors­en­ing every prob­lem we are try­ing to solve.

Most peo­ple intu­itive­ly know that our finan­cial sys­tem is put to a test dur­ing the Coro­na cri­sis. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in most cases it will turn out as a back­ward intu­ition: many peo­ple intu­itive­ly ask for a ban of short-selling or the high-frequency trad­ing of finan­cial assets. As we know from hun­dreds of years of expe­ri­ence, these instru­ments are of high sys­temic value, espe­cial­ly when mar­kets need liq­uid­i­ty to func­tion. How­ev­er, every time a finan­cial sit­u­a­tion turns chal­leng­ing, peo­ple start ask­ing reg­u­la­tors and law­mak­ers for these coun­ter­in­tu­itive mar­ket interventions.

Need­less to men­tion that in case you have found the lever­age points result­ing from Coro­na, nobody will believe you because of coun­ter­in­tu­itive­ness. This phe­nom­e­non can turn into frus­tra­tion if you have not only ana­lyzed the lever­ag­ing points but if you want to use them to make the world a bet­ter place.

How­ev­er, if you aren‘t a mis­an­thrope, you can and will always give it a try. Here‘s a list of places to inter­vene in a (com­plex) sys­tem — in increas­ing order of effectiveness:

12. Con­stants, para­me­ters, num­bers (such as sub­si­dies, taxes, standards)

11. The sizes of buffers and other sta­bi­liz­ing stocks, rel­a­tive to their flows

10. The struc­ture of mate­r­i­al stocks and flows (such as trans­port net­works, pop­u­la­tion age structures)

9. The lengths of delays, rel­a­tive to the rate of sys­tem change

8. The strength of neg­a­tive feed­back loops, rel­a­tive to the impacts they are try­ing to cor­rect against

7. The gain around dri­ving pos­i­tive feed­back loops

6. The struc­ture of infor­ma­tion flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)

5. The rules of the sys­tem (such as incen- tives, pun­ish­ments, constraints)

4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize sys­tem structure

3. The goals of the system

2. The mind­set or par­a­digm out of which the system—its goals, struc­ture, rules, delays, parameters—arises

1. The power to tran­scend paradigm


I‘m not a big fan of doom­say­ers, and I nei­ther rec­om­mend to make crit­i­cal deci­sions in times of unrest. If his­to­ry is a good teacher, we will have expe­ri­enced the most neg­a­tive impact of the Coro­na cri­sis until the end of April. In May, we will hope­ful­ly see no new infec­tions, there will be life on the streets, again, sit­u­a­tions in hos­pi­tals should have been relaxed, and all patients will get the treat­ments they deserve. When the worst is over, the not-exactly-as-bad aspects will dom­i­nate our lives — when health detri­ments have been solved, finan­cial prob­lems will be the next chal­lenge. A coun­try like Ger­many should be able to man­age this finan­cial cri­sis rel­a­tive­ly well. I expect the worst finan­cial chal­lenges to be solved at the end of this year. Of course, we all will have to work hard and pay back debts for the years to come — I‘m just speak­ing of the worst part.

It‘s kind of dif­fi­cult to eval­u­ate a cri­sis when being right in the mid­dle of it. How­ev­er, expe­ri­enc­ing how my fam­i­ly, friends, col­leagues, and every­body else I know of, are deal­ing with Coro­na, I am grate­ful, once again, liv­ing in times like these. Appar­ent­ly, mankind has made sig­nif­i­cant progress in some aspects of social com­pe­tence. I hope that my above-mentioned expec­ta­tion won’t prove to be too far from real­i­ty — and I invite every­body to become as grate­ful and pos­i­tive as I am — today! If you find it dif­fi­cult to be grate­ful and find your inner calm, try this daily rou­tine — it works! Let’s active­ly man­age the Coro­n­avirus cri­sis to make the world a bet­ter place!

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