According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the COVID-19 coronavirus will definitely develop into a widespread pandemic: it’s more a question of when, not if, it will happen. With growing outbreaks of diagnosed cases in 12 states, and vastly larger numbers of undiagnosed cases, there’s serious cause for concern. Yet the official pandemic preparation guidelines are way too optimistic and lead those who follow them to be vastly underprepared.
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Current COVID-19 Pandemic Preparation Guidance
The advice for individuals seems reasonable and makes common sense:
- Double-down on washing your hands
- Prepare for being out of commission for a couple of weeks if you get sick
- Stock up on daily consumables, such as food, medications, and cleaning supplies, for a couple of weeks in case you get sick
- Have contingencies in place in case you get sick
- Prepare for possibly working from home and/or that schools might temporarily close
- Coordinate with your neighbors to help each other
- Get ready for the psychological impact of the situation
So does the advice for companies:
- Cross-train employees in case some get sick
- Prepare for event cancellations
- Encourage sick employees to stay home
- Perform additional cleaning
- Make a disease outbreak response plan in case there’s an outbreak in your area
Overall, the essential take-away from all of these is epitomized by the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said that you “don’t need to do anything different today than you did yesterday,” except emergency preparation. In other words, all of these preparations are for disruptions that might last for a couple of weeks at most resulting from a local outbreak.
COVID-19: The Facts and Possibilities
While it seems reasonable and fits our intuitions, is it really good advice? Let’s consider the facts about COVID-19.
- COVID-19 is highly contagious, with each infected person on average infecting 3-5 others, and the infection doubling every 4-6 days.
- It survives on most surfaces for up to 9 days.
- It’s much more deadly than the flu, especially for older people. Those older than 50 have a fatality rate of over 6%.
- We won’t have a vaccine until late 2021 if things go perfectly, and more realistically not until 2023-24. Then, it will take a couple of years to produce enough vaccine, even with ramped-up production dedicated only to this area. If we’re moderately unlucky, the COVID-19 vaccine will be only as effective as the flu vaccine, reducing the chance of illness by 50%.
- If we’re lucky, once you have COVID-19, you won’t get it again. If we’re moderately lucky, once you get it, the immunity will last for a year or two. If we have bad luck, the immunity for COVID-19 will only last a few weeks.
- If we’re amazingly lucky, the virus will burn out by the end of the year. If we’re pretty lucky, COVID-19 will be a seasonal affliction and come back like the flu every year, yet the World Health Organization calls such an optimistic scenario a “false hope.” The most likely scenario is that it will just keep going, unaffected by seasons.
With that in mind, let’s reassess the COVID-19 preparation guidance, for individuals and companies alike.
The current guidance for both assumes a highly optimistic scenario, where we get very lucky. It assumes you might at worst face a one-time, short-term disruption of a couple of weeks due to an outbreak in your area.
So, do you feel lucky? Well, do ya?
Let’s be real: regardless of whether or not you feel lucky, you shouldn’t anticipate such an optimistic scenario. Instead of half-assing it, you need to prepare for a moderately unlucky scenario and be a realistic pessimist.
Why Our Brain Causes Us to Be Underprepared for Major Disruptions
Before exploring what that means, it’s important to understand why doing so doesn’t feel intuitive and why the advice you keep hearing on how to prepare for COVID-19 is so badly mistaken.
We suffer from many dangerous judgment errors that researchers in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics like myself call cognitive biases. These mental blindspots result from a combination of our evolutionary background and specific structural features in how our brains are wired.
Our primary threat response, which stems from the ancient savanna environment, is the fight-or-flight response, also known as the saber-tooth tiger response. A great fit for the kind of short-term intense risks we faced as hunter-gatherers, the fight-or-flight response results in terrible decisions in the modern environment. It’s particularly bad for defending us from major disruptions caused by the slow-moving train wrecks we face in the modern environment, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
More specifically, you need to watch out for three cognitive biases.
The normalcy bias causes our brains to assume things will keep going as they have been – normally – and evaluate the near-term future based on our short-term past experience. As a result, we underestimate drastically both the likelihood of a serious disruption occurring and the impact of one if it does occur.
When we make plans, we naturally believe that the future will go according to plan. That wrong-headed mental blindspot, the planning fallacy, results in us not preparing for contingencies and problems, both predictable ones and unknown unknowns.
Last but not least, we suffer from the tendency to prioritize the short term, and undercount the importance of medium and long-term outcomes. Known as hyperbolic discounting, this cognitive bias is especially bad for evaluating the potential long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Realistic Pessimistic Pandemic Preparation
It’s inherently uncomfortable to prepare for the realistic pessimistic scenario. That feeling of discomfort is you going against your gut reactions, which is what research shows is needed for you to defeat these mental blindspots, whether in your business and career, in your relationships, or in other life areas.
What does it mean to prepare for being moderately unlucky? Envision a future where COVID-19 isn’t eradicated, but keeps on going.
Let’s say it becomes like the flu, a seasonal affliction that comes every September and lasts through March. In about 5 years, we’ll develop and make widely available a weak vaccine, one that decreases the likelihood of infection by 50% and lasts for a few months.
How should you prepare in that case?
Individuals need to make long-term changes to their plans:
- Instead of a couple of weeks, you should have sufficient supplies of consumables, medications, and disinfectants for a couple of months, in case of ongoing outbreaks and lack of supplies in your area. If you get sick, you don’t want to go to the store, and neither do you want to go there in the midst of a major local outbreak.
- You might also keep in mind preparing extra supplies for your more happy-go-lucky neighbors and friends who follow the misguided advice of the CDC.
- If you plan to get groceries and other consumables delivered during an outbreak, get extra disinfectant to clean the outside of the box. The virus can survive on surfaces for a few days, and those working in delivery may come into work when sick.
- If you are elderly yourself, you need to make especially extreme changes to address the possibility of an outbreak in your area, since the threat is so high for the elderly. Can you secure a residence away from a densely-populated area in case your locality suffers an outbreak, or guarantee isolation in your home away from the outside world?
- If you have elderly relatives, now is the time to change your plans for supporting them. Set up major contingencies to prepare for an outbreak in their area.
- If you’re not currently in a job that allows work from home, or one that demands intense social contact, start investing in a career transition to one that permits social distancing.
- Prepare for much less in-person social contact with friends, family, and especially acquaintances in the months and years to come, and start now to switching more of your physical interactions to virtual ones.
- Similarly, prepare for the cancellations of major social events, ranging from sports to cultural events, and for the widespread closing of bars and restaurants.
- Start developing hobbies that don’t rely on other people being in close proximity.
- Start now to shift your entertainment consumption from activities that require social contact to those that don’t require it.
- Be ready to deal with other people panicking and making poor decisions, and take whatever steps you need to address such problems.
- Assume at least some others will not follow quarantine guidelines and behave accordingly.
- Prepare psychologically not simply for short-term disruptions, but for major social changes in the upcoming months and years. The list I outlined above is quite challenging and first and foremost, requires major mental shifts.
Companies also need to make major changes to the way they do business – not emergency plans, but fundamental underlying transformations:
- The most important changes will be in human-to-human contact. Does your business model rely on it? Explore creative ways of changing your business model to be more virtual in serving your customers, and where virtual interactions aren’t possible, create as much social distancing as you can.
- Can your employees work from home? Forward-looking companies are already encouraging their workers to do so as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. You should, too. That includes financing a wide variety of secure work-from-home services for your employees.
- So much business relies on relationships and networking. How can you switch your relationship cultivation and management to virtual venues? Perhaps you can focus more on LinkedIn and other means of networking and relationship maintenance, and less on face-to-face networking events.
- Can you shift your team meetings and even bigger corporate events to virtual forums? Instead of in-person conferences, consider doing virtual ones. Sure, you don’t get the intra-company networking benefits that you would get through face-to-face contact, and you’ll need to figure out ways to replace that bonding and relationship-building.
- Prepare for major disruptions to your supply chains, and especially to your service providers. Professional services, which depend a great deal on in-person contact, will be severely disrupted, and you need to be ready for it.
- Anticipate a variety of travel disruptions and event cancellations.
- Society will undergo a wide variety of social norm changes. Evaluate the extent to which your business model and staff will be impacted by such changes.
- Help your employees prepare much better at home than the current guidelines from the CDC and other health organizations suggest.
- Be ready for unknown unknowns, also known as black swans, by reserving extra capital and other resources for unanticipated threats and disruptions associated with COVID-19.
- By taking all of these steps early, you will have a major competitive advantage. Be ready to use the consequences of this competitive advantage to seize market share from your competitors who are inadequately prepared for these transitions.
- Some will be hobbled, while others go bankrupt. Be ready to hire highly-qualified employees who will be let go by those companies that trust too much the highly optimistic official preparedness guidelines. Anticipate buying the material resources of companies that are undergoing a fire sale.
Of course, you’ll want to adapt these broad guidelines to your own needs. Right now, you need to sit down and revise your strategic plans in a way that accounts for the cognitive biases associated with COVID-19. Do the same revision with major project plans.
That’s the advice I’m giving to all of my consulting and coaching clients, and I hope you also choose to follow this guidance. By taking these steps, you’ll protect yourself, your loved ones, your career, and your business from the way-too-optimistic preparedness guidelines of our official health organizations and from our deeply inadequate gut reactions in the face of such slow-moving train wrecks.
Official guidelines for COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic preparation assume a wildly optimistic scenario due to dangerous judgment errors known as cognitive biases. You need to instead prepare for a realistic pessimistic scenario. → Click to tweet
Questions to Consider
- How can you prepare yourself as an individual for the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic?
- How can you prepare your business for the pandemic?
- What steps will you take based on this article?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Originally Published at Disaster Avoidance Experts on March 7, 2020.