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Thursday, May 13, 2021

    Learning to live with a “Genius” virus

    In the time between writing this and you reading it, whatever I write about Covid-19 will likely to be out of date. In an earlier article, I have mentioned about the “Black Swan” event, a highly improbable and unpredictable event, and it has the nature of something developing at an exponential speed. It is an outlier, where normal rules did not apply. An outlier is “a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from others of the sample”. The scale of what’s happening now is hard to grasp and nothing is predictable. In India we imagined that the “curve would flatten” and after 70 days of “n” number of Lockdowns, with “social distancing” the contagion infection chain would break. Instead, what we witness now is a surge in the disease. Meanwhile, the country economy is on its knees and stumbling to get up following the protocols of Unlock-1.0 and moving on to Unlock-2.0

    We have to get better at understanding and reacting to exponential growth. As of February 11, the number of Covid-19 cases outside of China was less than 400. In June second week, confirmed coronavirus cases were more than 8 million and now in June last week it has crossed more than 10 million cases and global death toll more than 5 lakhs. On 12th June, the Union Ministry of Health reported that India’s doubling rate has improved to 17.4 days from 15.4 days a couple of weeks ago. To understand exponential growth, imagine a pond with a single water hyacinth plant/green algae and each day the number of water hyacinth/green algae doubles. By the end of the week, the pond will be fully covered and all other aquatic life is smothered.  In the context of Covid-19, this meant for decision-makers in March, that if we did not use Lockdown to “flatten the curve of growth,” a vast amount of illness and death will hit very rapidly crippling the unprepared health care system of India.

    President Trump has described the novel coronavirus as a “genius,” “a hidden enemy” and a “monster”. One thing we can be sure that it is unpredictable. It has been at least six months since the novel coronavirus began replicating in human beings. New York Times science editor Alan Burdick wrote a profile of the virus that explores its origins in Earth’s primordial past, as well as its possible future. “I approached this as if I were writing a magazine profile of a celebrity and I needed to talk to the people who know this person,” One of the questions that he asked the scientists was, ‘How do you picture this thing?’”. He wrote that a better description is: “a microscopic photocopy machine, model SARS-CoV-2”. Unlike previous SARS viruses, which tended to settle deeper in the respiratory system, this one tends to settle in the upper respiratory system, in your nose and throat. That means that it tends to spread with your voice, in addition to coughs and sneezes. Burdick wrote: “when you look at where a lot of the major super-spreader events have occurred, it’s places like churches where folks are singing. It’s meatpacking plants where people have to talk really loud. It’s sports arenas. It’s call centers. And I realized, holy cow, this is a virus that is ideally adapted to the human conversation”. Maybe, Mother Nature is telling us puny humans: “Be polite! Don’t shout, when you can speak softly”.

    All viruses make mistakes when they make copies of themselves, but this one doesn’t make as many mistakes, or mutations, which is around two a month on average. We now hope that the vaccines and drugs the research laboratories and pharmaceutical companies manufacture won’t be outdated six months from now because the virus has mutated again and become resistant. Scientists have managed to learn a lot about the coronavirus in six months, but much remains a mystery. Another insight, even when a vaccine becomes available, it may not lead to “herd immunity” because antibodies for viruses that infect mucosal surfaces, as the coronavirus does, tend to be short-lived. Historically, vaccines against respiratory illnesses have not been very effective.

    It’s too early to talk about lessons learned while a large-scale human tragedy is still unfolding. While earlier, the decision to implement Lockdown was an urgent compulsion, now unlocking the economy is an urgent requirement. For the leaders and policymakers, decision-making has been always very important to their success and this has become more critical in these times of Covid-19 crisis. For India, it is a double whammy when along with the pandemic we are pounded by super-cyclone like Amphan, locust attack, cloud burst, landslides and flood, major industrial incidents in Vizag and Baghjan, topping it with Ladakh standoff with the Chinese. It has become most challenging for decision-makers and more difficult because the future is unknown and outcomes are uncertain. Because of the stress of these times, cognitive decision biases may influence decisions in damaging ways.

    Behavioral Economist Richard H. Thaler, 2017 winner of Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences for the pioneering work and research in behavioural economics that incorporates psychology has written that traditional economics assumes people are rational but real people are not robots, They are emotional and have an attitude. Whether buying food items, clothing, mobile phone, selecting a school, voting for a candidate, selecting an employee, etc., we all succumb to biases and make decisions that deviate from the standards of rationality assumed by economists. In other words, we misbehave and our misbehaviour can sometimes have serious consequences. Behavioural scientists have identified a number of cognitive biases that affect decision-making, usually in a negative way. Emotion-driven beliefs and intuition are powerful at guiding people toward less-than-optimal decisions. By understanding our biases, we have a better chance of taking care and moving toward making better choices.

    Degrees of certainty and uncertainty are expressed as statements of risk. All organizational decisions involve some degree of risk, ranging from complete certainty — no risk– to complete uncertainty, “a shot in the dark”– high risk. To make the best possible decisions in organisations, people seek to “manage” the risk they take – that is, minimizing the riskiness of a decision by gaining access to information relevant to the decision. What makes an outcome risky or not is the probability of obtaining the desired outcome. Decision-makers attempts to obtain information about the probabilities, or odds, of certain events occurring given that other events have occurred. The decision will be based on “objective probabilities” if they are based on concrete, verifiable data. But, with no complete, concrete and verifiable data about Covid-19 situation, people tend to make decisions based on “subjective probabilities”—personal beliefs, biases and hunches about what will happen.  Public health and epidemiology are probabilistic fields, No treatment or intervention can lower the relevant probability to zero or raise it to 100%; one can only lower or raise the probability within limits.

    In the case of Covid-19, probabilistic thinking and decision-making are made even more difficult by the shortage of good data on how the virus is transmitted and the most effective treatment strategies. Currently, we have data of infected patients, cured after hospitalization and deaths.  When all kind of data becomes available, we hope that policymakers make effective use of it. In our individual behaviours, since we do not know absolutely how the virus infects, the only reasonable behaviour short of total self-quarantine is to try to reduce the probability of infection with the recommended measures of “social distancing”, using face-mask and hand-sanitizers frequently.  

    A lot of decision biases can come into play in these uncertain stressful times of Covid-19 pandemic. In the last three months, we have observed decision biases of multiple types evident among our political leaders, administrators and the citizens. In March, in the early stages of the pandemic, we all were guilty of the “Status quo bias”.  The status quo bias involves considering the current state of affairs to be optimal and anything different as a loss. I and some colleagues were discussing that we planned this conference, therefore we should have it.  People who planned meetings, audits, projects were grumbling failing to adjust to the new reality of lockdown, quarantine, travel restrictions. In organisations, we fall into a routine making “programmed decisions” according to pre-established organizational routines and procedures. Novel virus required “non-programmed decisions”, decisions about a highly novel problem for which there is no pre-specified course of action. In India, we waited till 22nd March to stop International commercial passenger flights. Business, religious and political meetings, including election campaigns continued till 24th March, when the nationwide Lockdown-1.0 was announced with four hours notice limiting the movement of the entire 1.3 billion population.

    In addition to individual and group forces that affect decision making, there are political pressures and time pressures. Sometimes the quality of decisions people make in organisations is limited by the pressures they face to look good to others i.e., to “save face”, even though the resulting decision might not be in the best interest of their organisations. Past studies on the topic of political face-saving found that people working on a group decision-making problem opted for an adequate, although less than optimal, decision rather than risk generating serious conflicts with their fellow group members. While the coronavirus has no politics, people do and their politics affect how they interpret information and make decisions. The media, especially the electronic media, appealing to different political groups stoked the “Political bias”, that people of the certain category were the super-spreaders of the coronavirus.

    In contemporary organisations, people often have limited amounts of time to make important decisions. In times of Covid-19 crisis, we don’t have the luxury of generating and evaluating alternative solutions and making a rational choice. For emergency-room doctors, firefighters and fighter pilots it is clear that time is of the essence. Now, even those who work in less dramatic settings also face the need to make a good decision quickly. Time constraint can result in bad and inevitably costly decisions. Highly experienced experts, psychologists tell us, are able to make good decisions quickly because they draw on a wealth of experience collected over the years. But, no person alive has any such experience of handling global pandemics in the past, like the 1918 Spanish flu.

    We have to accept that people are human and it is human to make mistakes. People are less than perfect when it comes to making decisions. Unlike a computer, people have limited capacities to process information accurately and thoroughly. We often focus on irrelevant information in making decisions. We also fail to use all the information that is available to us, in part because we may forget some of it. A well-established decision-making bias known as “framing”, the tendency for people to make different decisions based on how the problem is presented to them. The framing effect is one of the most powerful influences on any decision is how the issue to be decided is framed. In this pandemic the important question of how to manage the virus is framed as “Lockdown” or “Unlock and save the economy” and people are divided in their opinion. Binary, either/or framing is often suboptimal. It masks the possibility of other alternatives or pursuing one decision in some situations and a different one in others. If possible, consider multiple different framings of the same decision, ideally some with non-binary outcomes. We hope the “Total Lockdown” in Guwahati and “Weekend Lockdown” in district headquarters being experimented will be successful. According to “goal framing effect” phenomenon people are more strongly persuaded by the negatively framed information than by the positively framed information. So, in attempting to persuade people to wear the mask, it would be more effective to focus on the negative consequence of not doing it than on the positive consequence of doing it.

    Understanding the decision making process and the biases that can affect us will help us all improve our decisions, including for legislators and administrators who make large-scale decisions affecting lives of lakhs of citizens, for business leaders who have to make decisions affecting their industry and their workers, and individual householders about our families. With good decision making and avoiding biases, it is hoped the government and the industries will plan well about a future beyond the current crisis, be prepared with well-built medical treatment and testing facilities, resilient organisations and robust supply chain system.

    The writer works independently as a Quality Management consultant and has implemented ISO Quality Management System, Environmental Management System, Occupational Health and Safety Management System and Energy Management in scores of service and manufacturing organisations. 

    He teaches Human Resource Management at post-graduate level in Gauhati University, a visiting faculty at Assam Administrative Staff College and trainer with many other public and private sector organisations. 

    The views expressed by the author are personal and may not in any way represent those of TIME8.


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    First published