Systems Thinking and COVID-19

How does systems thinking help us understand the COVID-19 crisis? What are the implications of a systems view for responding more effectively to this crisis and preparing to manage future breakdowns in our natural and social worlds? Here are five insights and their implications:

  1. The world is tightly interconnected – and we can no longer afford to ignore this fact.

Connectedness has moved from being an interesting concept to a disturbing reality. A microbe appearing in one part of China has infected over 3,000,000 people, killed over 200,000, and upended healthcare and economic systems around the world in a matter of months. Not only are the fates of all countries more closely connected in time than ever before, but several other critical interdependencies also demand our attention:

  • The many systems we fund and manage separately are highly interdependent. For example, we cannot have a strong economic system without a strong public health system. Our abilities to feed ourselves and educate our children in turn depend on both of these. Our energy and transportation systems depend on whether we work from home or onsite. And how we work is affected by the public health system.
  • The fates of the “haves” and “have-nots” are interconnected. While a few people have the resources to ride out the economic downturn, even they are more dependent than ever on agricultural and food workers, health care providers of all types, delivery people, and school teachers among others – people who are now recognized as “essential” even though they are frequently underpaid, mistreated, and some at risk of deportation. Moreover, extreme wealth inequality in the U.S., the nation most affected by the virus, has resulted in political polarization that undermines the country’s ability to mount a coordinated, rapid response (see our white paper “Overcoming the Systemic Challenges of Wealth Inequality in the U.S.”)
  1. How we manage time delays is crucial because what happens in one part of the world affects events elsewhere more rapidly than ever before.

Because problems can amplify quickly, we must dramatically reduce the time it takes to respond to them. In order to do so, we have to decrease the time delays that normally occur between:

  • When a condition changes (such as the appearance of a virus) and when we decide to do something to address the change (such as invest in needed supplies or effect social distancing)
  • When decisions are made and when they are implemented (for example the time required to mass manufacture such supplies as masks, ventilators, and a vaccine once their needs have been identified)
  • When decisions are implemented and when new results gain traction (e.g. decreases in infections and deaths)

We can reduce time delays in general by:

  • Investing more to anticipate system breakdowns (such as pandemics) and preparing to address them before they overwhelm us
  • Relying on hard data and experts who are familiar with similar system dynamics in other situations
  • Closely coordinating responses across different stakeholders when a specific breakdown occurs
  • Updating our assumptions and strategies based on the actions we take and results we get
  1. Because system conditions tend to grow exponentially, i.e. much more rapidly than we would expect, we not only need to decrease response times but also slow down the time it takes for the problem to get worse.

The core vicious cycle which governs pandemics grows exponentially, i.e. the number of people infected increases the risk of spreading the disease, which further increases the number of people infected at an accelerated rate. The acceleration is due here to some critical characteristics of the COVID-19 virus:

  • It is readily transmissible through touching shared surfaces and sneezing/coughing at close quarters
  • People can carry (and hence spread) the virus without even being aware that they are infected

Understanding the exponential expansion of the virus is key to “flattening the curve”, in other words spreading out the number of people infected over time so we can treat them more effectively and reduce the number of deaths. Social distancing, wearing masks, and frequent hand-washing are all things we are doing to slow the spread of the infection.

  1. Our underlying beliefs and assumptions (mental models) about a problem are themselves part of the problem.

Some of the beliefs which lead the COVID-19 pandemic to be so destructive are:

  • Most problems grow gradually and in manageable ways instead of suddenly and rapidly. By contrast, one of the reasons emergency preparedness is such a critical investment is that many problems amplify exponentially instead of linearly.
  • If you want to solve a problem, just allocate a lot of money to it. As an example, the U.S. federal government has already approved nearly $1 trillion to address the virus, but that money is not getting to the intended beneficiaries quickly enough if at all. By contrast, while money is a key part of many solutions, it only works to the extent that spending it is supported by a clear long-term strategy, carefully designed roll-out, and well-executed implementation process.
  • Whatever we do to address the problem in the short-term will also solve it in the long-term. By contrast, short-term solutions only work if they are designed and implemented within the context of a long-term solution. For example, until a vaccine is developed and available to all, the virus is likely to return in waves, albeit ones of decreasing severity.
  1. Many complex problems can be understood and addressed through recognizable patterns and interventions.

Many complex system problems are produced by relatively simple, frequently recurring structures. We call these classic stories, system archetypes, or structural traps. We can not only easily describe these dynamics, but also understand the mental models that reinforce them and the best interventions to address them.

In the case of COVID-19, some of the most relevant dynamics and their implications are:

  • Limits to Growth: an engine of growth is eventually slowed down by balancing factors. In this case, the rapid spread of the virus can be slowed down in the short-term through social distancing, hand-washing, and wearing masks, and in the long-term through the development of herd immunity and a vaccine.
  • Accidental Adversaries: two groups who should be able to benefit from partnering become adversaries when they independently create solutions which unwittingly make things worse for the other group. In the case of the virus, the potential adversaries are public health experts committed to protecting people’s health and business groups committed to ensuring jobs. Pushing too hard or quickly to achieve one goal at the expense of the other can result in potentially unnecessary deaths due to the illness or to the loss of livelihoods.
  • Success to the Successful: there is always a tendency for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, as we are seeing here in terms of the increased vulnerability of people already struggling to get by. Recognizing and supporting the contributions everyone makes to society are key to redressing this imbalance.
  • Tragedy of the Commons: the accelerated demand on our limited healthcare resources (a “commons” to be protected) has sometimes required doctors to make life-death decisions involving patients needing the same resources such as ventilators or different ones such as patients requiring COVID-19 treatment or heart surgery. Effectively managing the commons entails both increasing the resources available to all and delegating authority to higher levels such as healthcare administrators about how to allocate these resources.

In a time of greater interconnectedness and increasing environmental instability, it only makes sense to expect the unexpected. We believe that enabling all of us to think systemically will help us be better prepared for the next crisis.

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