On the complexity of change: The chaos of COVID-19

A fractal phenomenon of sacrifice and comfort, of loss and gain, of hope and fear. An experience of chaos. And a time of chance. And opportunity.

Below I will make use of the explanatory power of Complexity Theory to make more sense of my lived experience. Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis.
I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers I will show below, I find it far more important that each of us thinks first about spreading the virus.
Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come close to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.
And the learning for after all this? The opportunities? A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.

Why am I only writing about this now?

My colleagues and I have been teleworking from home for the last three weeks. I did predict that I would have more time to read, to think, to write. It has been 25 days since the first post with my initial thoughts on COVID-19. The next came four days later. And then nothing until now. I had not predicted that I would dedicate longer hours and more effort to my day job, thinking that working from home meant saving work time, having time for other pursuits. I was wrong. And I have been very lucky. Not only my mortgage payments are still withdrawn on the first of the month, my salary comes in at roughly the same time. I have a job to go to and I don’t even have to go to do it. So, the least I can do is do my job well to keep our contractors in gainful employ as newly minted teleworking teachers. And I hope that some good is coming of sharing my thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic through the rational lens of complexity. And chaos!

Really? Now also Complexity Theory has something to say about COVID-19?

In earlier posts I referenced the Cynefin framework of problem solving by Dave Snowden and his collaborators. I talked about simple and linear problems—which he calls complicated—and I slowly began a discussion of complex problems and complexity in general. Little did I know at the time that I would feel that now I have to dive right into a discussion of the societal and individual situation of COVID-19 as a chaotic problem and could not develop my thinking further about complexity and the solving of complex problems.

Why Complexity Theory after toilet paper, shelter-in-place, social distancing, self-isolation, unemployment, recession, …?
The quality of a theory can be gauged by its power. Many theories have predictive power. When we apply an appropriate powerful theory to a set of observations of a system, we have a chance to predict in what state the system will be next or some time in the future. For complex systems, this is very difficult and perhaps impossible. I would argue that Complexity Theory is often not applied for its predictive power—maybe it even has less of it. For me, its strength is its explanatory power.

Is this chaos?

When is a complex dynamic system—a global process such as the pandemic COVID-19—in chaos?
When we perceive it as such. When the many interacting agents, components, and variables produce stark contrasts of change rapidly. At times, it looks like this rapid change came out of nowhere. At times, a minute action—the ill-informed and ill-advised tweet or utterance of a prominent political actor; the well-intended intervention of a country doctor—impacts the system at an extraordinarily disproportionate scale. At times, a draconian measure—a shelter-in-place order in a whole state or country; the closing of a national border to all non-residents—has dramatic and unpredicted side effects. Especially, when a dynamic system grows nonlinearly and exponentially. This is when it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to ascertain the temporary relationship between two agents, between two components, between two variables, because the relationship of any one of these to other agents, components, or variables is blurred. This makes it difficult and nearly impossible to carefully consider the context of the two agents, components, or variables.

Exponential growth

What does nonlinear exponential growth mean? I am not a mathematician; I am simply a person who derives a lot of meaning and sense from numbers. They hardly ever tell the whole story, but they tell you often what to look for in a story. In the story of COVID-19, you might have heard a lot about the doubling rate. Let’s do a very sad and saddening thought experiment because we often remember them better: We have a country—let’s call in Drumland—with 200 million inhabitants. It’s doubling rate is three days. Every three days, twice as many people get sick of an infectious disease.
Day 1=one Day 3=two Day 6=four Day 9=eight
Day 12=16 Day 15=32 Day 18=64 Day 21=128.
After three weeks, more than 100 people are sick. Nobody really notices. People get sick all the time. Yet, these are in addition to the ones who normally get sick during these three weeks.
Day 24=256 Day 27=512 Day 30=1,024 Day 33=2,048
Day 36=4,096 Day 39=8,192 Day 42=16,384.
After six weeks, people begin to notice. Especially, if there are large clusters of sick people in a particular community or group. Some begin to worry. Some take action. It is difficult to understand what is going on. Some action works, some does not. But the infectious disease does not slow down.
In Week 7=65,536 after Week 8=524,288 Week 9=2 million
in Week 10=16 million in Week 11=67 million.
At this rate of exponential growth in this artificial thought experiment, all 200 million people of Drumland are sick after 12 weeks. If this exponential growth were homogeneous.

Nonlinear and not homogeneous

Any process—a complex dynamic system—in a community or society is, of course, not homogeneous. Each person in Drumland can help slow down or speed up the growth rate. Some will stay home and not spread the disease virus. Some are healthy enough to not only be immune soon but also not contagious any longer. Some will help the more vulnerable to be more protected. Some will help heal the sick.

So, we could ride it out? Theoretically, maybe. Some governments worldwide still seem to think so. As I said in a previous post, I have no background in medicine or public health at all. All I can do is look at the numbers and think of the people. If only 1 in 100 infected people dies, in Drumland, this will be 2,000,000. If the health system is fragile, many people did not have a good chance of living healthy beforehand, or measures introduced sped up the growth of the infection, it could be more. Every single person in Drumland who knows at least 100 people will in all likelihood know one other person who succumbed to the virus, to which no one was immune before it arrived.

So what?

So, does Complexity Theory predict doom and gloom? For me it does not. It explains the seriousness of the current situation worldwide. I realize that it is far more serious in some countries, far more threatening in some cities, far more frightening for some families. Yet, I believe that the numbers show clearly that it is not a national problem nor an individual problem. I believe a pandemic is a problem for whole societies, for the world. Individually, we can get through this by staying home and strengthening our immune system further, if we are lucky to have our livelihood secure. If we all assume our individual responsibility for our society as a whole, for our neighbors and the people we have never met, and the people in other corners of this world, what can we do, once we understand one small aspect of this chaotic complex system a little better?

And a verbatim repeat of the beginning:

Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis.
I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers above, I find it far more important for each of us thinking about spreading the virus.
Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come in close proximity to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.

And the learning for after all this? The chances and opportunities?
A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.

4 thoughts on “On the complexity of change: The chaos of COVID-19

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