Pandemics and the failure to think systematically

As it turns out, the reality-based, science-friendly communities and information sources many of us depend on also largely failed. We had time to prepare for this pandemic at the state, local, and household level, even if the government was terribly lagging, but we squandered it because of widespread asystemic thinking: the inability to think about complex systems and their dynamics. We faltered because of our failure to consider risk in its full context, especially when dealing with coupled risk—when multiple things can go wrong together. We were hampered by our inability to think about second- and third-order effects and by our susceptibility to scientism—the false comfort of assuming that numbers and percentages give us a solid empirical basis. We failed to understand that complex systems defy simplistic reductionism.

Zeynep Tufekci, “What Really Doomed Americas Coronovirus Response” published 24-Mar-2020 in the Atlantic

On point analysis. Hits many of the themes of this blog, including system thinking, complexity and risk and makes some excellent points that all of us in quality should be thinking deeply upon.

COVID-19 is not a black swan. Pandemics like this have been well predicted. This event is a different set of failures, that on a hopefully smaller scale most of us are unfortunately familiar with in our organizations.

I certainly didn’t break out of the mainstream narrative. I traveled in February, went to a conference and then held a small event on the 29th.

The article stresses the importance of considering the trade-offs between resilience, efficiency, and redundancy within the system, and how the second- and third-order impacts can reverberate. It’s well worth reading for the analysis of the growth of COVID-19, and more importantly our reaction to it, from a systems perspective.