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Preparing For The Next Pandemic
Short term scenario planning is now restricted to which products and services will trend, talent requirements, technologies that will simplify operations and business models that will boost bottom lines.
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It is too early to put out a treatise on “Lessons Learnt from COVID-19 and Our Response to It.” There will be experts expounding on the “5 Lessons for CEOs from COVID-19” and the “10 Management Takeaways from COVID-19”. Good luck to them. COVID-19 has dealt a blow to people, society, businesses and governments that will take years to fully decode and decades to comprehend and repair. The list of lessons and takeaways will run into hundreds, not 5 and 10. For the moment, what COVID-19 is telling business leaders and keepers of the wealth of nations is this: The nature and scale of risk have changed; you cannot remain satisfied by the complacency that “Business Continuity Planning” brings; notch up your risk mitigation strategy to “Life Continuity Planning”.
Newspaper headlines have now conditioned us to believe that COVID-19 was an unexpected event of the kind “we could not have imagined” or “we could not have foreseen.” This is true for most of us. We lack knowledge about the nature of viruses. But was it truly unexpected? Did no one forecast it? First, SARS in 2002 and H1N1 in 2009 were the early signs of impending disaster. We failed to pay adequate attention to these indicators. Organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank (WB), whose remit includes taking a peek into the future, also warned us about such a pandemic. The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board of WHO and WB, in its annual report on the global preparedness for health emergencies released as recently as September 2019, called “A World at Risk”, was almost prophetic. The report spoke about “a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy.” The report continued to say that “a global pandemic on that scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and insecurity. The world is not prepared.”
Bear with me for another moment or two. Because the point being made here is that we don’t take reports and forecasts as seriously as we should. Were SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, H1N1 and the WHO-WB report not enough of a warning? Not really. Between 2011 and 2018, WHO tracked 1,483 epidemic events in 172 countries. This didn’t seem to be a big enough warning. Bill Gates, speaking at a TED event in 2015 highlighted the fact that “if anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades (it will be) not missiles but microbes.” He too concluded that we were not ready for a deadly virus outbreak. As far back as 2017, the WB’s International Working Group on Financing Preparedness released a report called “From Panic and Neglect to Investing in Health Security” which rang a warning bell by concluding that the world’s investments in pandemic preparedness and response remain woefully inadequate. All these reports have recommendations on preparing for the catastrophe presented by an errant virus.
It’s fascinating to see how reasonable statesmen, shrewd politicians and astute businessmen didn’t see the red flashing lights. Compare this with the fact that astrologers and astrological columns refuse to fade away. If anything, “astrology is currently enjoying a broad cultural acceptance that hasn’t been seen since the nineteen-seventies,” says The New Yorker in a 2019 article that goes on to explain that the practice has reached new speeds through social media (Psst! Spoiler: Millennials are fueling this trend). We may ridicule believers in astrology, but it is an indicator of a larger human trait. As a race, we are incredibly curious and have an overwhelming desire to snoop on the future. This trait runs so deep that we are even willing to pay astrologers to tell us what tomorrow holds, without a shred of proof. But give us a seriously-researched, data-based, scientifically-backed report of the future and the chances are we will ignore it #ironic.
The only reports of the future we are willing to accept and act on are those that tell us what the next four quarters hold for us. In short, we are driven by “foresight of the moment.” Anything beyond that is good to present at conferences and seminars, but who has the time or the willpower to act on them?
Perhaps we need to take a cue from the way the military does its redundancy and scenario planning. Herman Kahn, a futurist who went on to work for the RAND Corporation (funded by the US government) as a military strategist, analyzed how a nuclear war might play out between the US and the Soviet Union. In many ways, Kahn’s work was about Life Continuity Planning. It tried to answer questions around how and where life would survive and the game plan that would assure that outcome.
Scenario planning became so successful in the middle of the last century that giants in banking, utilities, manufacturing and consumer goods began to use the methodology. Today, even the local food delivery uses the methodology.
When private business began funding the research that goes into scenario planning, they didn’t want to know what would happen 10 years hence. They wanted to know what would happen in the next four quarters. Okay, perhaps that’s uncharitable—some organizations may actually be interested in the next 24 months, but anything beyond is a waste of money. There is a powerful argument to back the short-term view: “Change cycles are shrinking.” The argument has been repeated so often that it has eclipsed all other truths, including long-term thinking.
Short term scenario planning is now restricted to which products and services will trend, talent requirements, technologies that will simplify operations and business models that will boost bottom lines. The reports do not address unseen risk 5 years or 10 years into the future. In effect, many of them are no better—or worse—than an astrology column in the weekend papers.
Does that help answer the question, “How do we prepare for the next pandemic?” It does. The short answer is, by investing serious money, expertise and energy into forecasting the future, paying attention to it, and acting on it. We must begin to take a long-term view of the future. The next four quarters won’t cut it.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.