Provocation #2
Live with the virus

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Might there soon be a medical breakthrough that eradicates COVID-19 from the face of the earth? In that case humankind will declare victory and move on. Or the pandemic might unleash new waves across the world, forcing stricter lockdowns and cratering economies beyond repair. More likely perhaps is that contagion will continue, and the world’s societies resolve to live with the risk in ways they have not considered so far. What will that compromise look like? How can we—as nations, as enterprise leaders, and as individuals—adapt to the new conditions and continue to thrive? Setting aside magical thinking and apocalyptic rhetoric alike, we need collectively to agree on some sturdy principles for living with the virus.

For example, what is the failure we are most likely to commit and must avoid as we work to diminish the human ravages of the virus?  Imagine that, looking back a decade hence, the inescapable conclusion is that our response fell short. How will that failure be manifested? Who will turn out to have done, or not done, what?


Consider what was first identified as the failure to avoid at all costs: overwhelming intensive care facilities and other scarce healthcare resources. This turned into the clear directive to “flatten the curve” of infection and death. Where that failure was avoided, the new failure to avoid—and therefore the criteria for easing lockdown restrictions—is far less clear and agreed-on.

Or, if effective management depends on tracking progress against objectives, what are the goals we should set ourselves and how will we tell if we are meeting them?

Useful “metrics” must relate to purpose (ie “what matters most”, or perhaps “the failure to avoid at all costs”) as well as accurately, objectively, and comparably representing reality. Absent a clear overall goal, in some countries early in the pandemic massive testing became the de facto purpose, irrespective of reliability or who was being tested, squeezing out arguably greater priorities.

If, as likely, no single figure can measure adequate cohabitation with the virus, a better goal may be to establish an index of qualities that all contribute to human thriving.

Many people have the power to act and effectively influence others. What obstacles might keep them from reaching consensus on a path forward?

The fights around COVID-19 are often characterized as scientific rather than political. In fact, they are both—and in neither realm is much “settled.” Obstacles range from lack of essential knowledge (even misinformation) to conflicting beliefs about what best serves societal needs. Some argue that failure to defeat the virus is down to the refusal of leaders to “follow the science”; others the reverse, that the technocratic bias of decision-makers has kept them from taking commonsense actions based on wise judgment in the face of competing priorities.

How is living with the virus different than living with other risk factors that force people to make tradeoffs in their daily lives? What could be done to make the risks of contagion more manageable?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs suggests that risks are experienced differently: an immediate threat to life is sui generis, separate from threats to health, prosperity, or social capital. But given the outcomes to date, can we take a more fine-grained view of the risks that different demographic groups face from COVID-19? How can a conflicted media industry be enlisted to help the public weigh the risks better?

What should we be demanding of political and business leaders now? What can they do to increase the chances of coming out of 2020 in better shape overall? What must they stop doing?

the Drucker Forum Editors 

What do you think? Use the reply function to post comments of up to 300 words in length. In the interests of lively but respectful debate, we accept strongly-held views and robust comment, but not personal attacks or political statements.


  1. How to frame the Covid-19 predicament? The emerging field of complexity science can help. It distinguishes between complicated problems that permit technical solutions (e.g. putting a man on the moon) and complex challenges that require adaptive responses (e.g. raising children). Covid-19 is a complex challenge requiring an adaptive response but with the possibility, given enough time, of being reduced to a complicated problem with a technical solution (e.g. an effective vaccine).

    The closest business analogy is a firm with a broken business model that is also running out of cash. Fixing the business model will take time: a cash shortage will kill much quicker. The cash problem demands fast, top-down decisions backed by draconian discipline and excellent data. Only then will the enterprise have the time to develop an adaptive response and come up with a new business model.

    We see elements of this “both…and” response (famously dubbed “The Hammer and the Dance” ) in the effective handling of the pandemic. At the beginning of the outbreak, before any data, astute leaders realized that a quick response was needed. They conducted an “analogical inquiry”, using the liberal arts. They consulted historians who had studied the Spanish flu of 1918. Some searched for similarities between the virus and other coronaviruses like SARS. Others read Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague. The result was lockdowns and “social distancing” that bought enough time for data to become available and knowledge about the virus to accumulate. This would allow them to develop more differentiated, adaptive response that would take account of local circumstances. Now they could claim to be “driven by science” and using “evidence-based strategies”. But it couldn’t start that way: in the beginning, when we faced uncertainty and not just risk, it took (and will still take) good judgment and leadership everywhere.

  2. Perhaps one pathway to adapting to the likely reality that we will need to learn to live with the virus is to reframe the problem. Over the past few months, we have learned that Covid-19 is more than a public health crisis. It is an economic crisis as many have lost jobs, a general health crisis with unintended deaths from delayed medical treatments, increased suicides, and drug additions, and a social cohesion crisis as civil behavior has devolved, sometimes into violence in the streets.

    If we reframe the problem as a social system crisis and expand the diversity of voices as we search for creative solutions to this most difficult situation, we open up the possibility that aggregating and leveraging our collective intelligence might accelerate our path to a holistic solution that addresses and balances the many concurrent dimensions of what may be the most challenging social system crisis of our lifetime.

  3. Six months into the global pandemic, it often seems like we are trying to learn the art of juggling. Governments around the world are struggling to find equilibrium between multiple factors: public health, the economy, and community morale and well-being. All are intertwined and interdependent.

    Typically, a government’s response to a pandemic is to deal with the public health emergency immediately. There are many measures that can be implemented, including doubling down on quarantines, restricting gatherings and movement, border controls and hygiene regulations, mass testing and contact tracing. But many of these necessary actions to shut down the pandemic also shut down economic activity, particularly in sectors like tourism, food and hospitality, and aviation.

    In Asia, the trend has been to prioritize public health over the economy. Here in Hong Kong, as in many other Asian countries, we have zero tolerance for COVID-19 infection–test positive, and you are sent straight to hospital. Most countries in Asia have imposed stringent border controls alongside mandatory 14 day quarantines. Meanwhile, citizens have been asked to contribute to the effort by wearing masks in public, social distancing and hand-washing, and staying at home whenever possible. (This is no small sacrifice in a city like Hong Kong, where a family home is often only 300-400 square feet.)

    In Hong Kong, we have been influenced by the work done by the COVID-19 response team at Imperial College, London, who have come up with the “suppress and lift” concept. This involves slowing the virus spread by implementing public health measures that are alternately relaxed and tightened, depending on fluctuations in the actual conditions. This method is flexible, and helps avoid prolonged economic lockdowns. And by allowing for breaks in social restrictions it also recognizes that maintaining public morale is a crucial component of public health.

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