COVID-19, One Year In: A ‘Perfect Storm’ for ‘Conventional Wisdom’. So What?

David Harries
Chairman of the "Pugwash" Group, Canada
Member of the World Academy of Art and Science


The Setting

The global pandemic was declared by the WHO on 11 March 2020, signalling that COVID-19 had or was about to reach all shores. Since then, the initial virus and increasing number of variants and their consequences have all but destroyed the ‘conventional wisdom’ that leaders – indeed all of us - have depended upon, more or less, for decades. This destruction is cause and effect of a mind-boggling variety of ever-changing responses to the pandemic. These have included frenetic efforts to cope with it, by defending against its spread and containing it with an ever-changing patchwork of lockdowns, curfews, and social restrictions, and, now, to prevent it with one or more of the amazingly quickly developed and approved vaccines currently being deployed. Unfortunately, loud and influential denial of COVID-19’s existence and lethality continues to obstruct progress, and a significant minority everywhere remain suspicious of vaccines, even as millions still sicken and die.

Whether the wisdom was a norm, a preference, an assumption, an opinion, an ideal, a probability or, even, a fantasy, COVID-19 has laid waste to many of them in a perfect storm of; initially unpreparedness, then very unevenly evolving spread and lethality, and now uncertainty about how long the pandemic will hold hostage progress on the path towards the day when COVID-19 is no more than a controlled problem[1]. Unfortunately, “accelerating history” together with more than a few[2] other, concurrent and reinforcing, global, regional and national challenges appear set to continue to outpace humanity’s collective ability to cope successfully with them all.


COVID-19 Attacks on Conventional Wisdom

An 11 March 2021 list, briefly annotated and in no particular order, follows.

  • A global crisis would provoke international/multilateral ways and means and willingness to collaborate on dealing with it. But it has done the opposite. Uneven responses – in timing and degree - to the first, the second, and now third waves of infection have only exposed the absence of joint effort, initially, and still today.
  • We humans learn lessons from past crises and, as a result, are thoughtful enough to prepare to be prepared for the next. The now thoroughly exposed start-state for PPE on 11 March 2021 was only the first of several signals that most governments had either forgotten or never learned from experience of past pandemics, even the most recent.
  • Donald Trump never tells the truth. Chris Wallace, in an interview with Trump aired on 19 July 2021 succeeded in provoking the comment: “It is what it is.’ in reference to 200,000 dead Americans. As of this date, with more than 530,000 COVID-19 deaths, Trump’s early and oft-repeated lie that the pandemic will simply ‘go away’ is a perverse memorial to his lying.
  • Religion is positive, overall. The Pope, in an interview aired 20 March 2020, claimed that rumours about church affairs were more threatening than COVID-19. The exercise of religious ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ has killed and infected millions of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and atheists.
  • Our aged, disabled, and chronically ill are respected and acceptably well-cared for, in both the public and private domains. The continuing tragedy, even in rich, developed countries, of hundreds of thousands of horrific or lonely or unnecessary deaths is a searing indictment of so-called ‘caring society.
  • Borders are useful in a crisis. Not this crisis. For much of 2020 sovereign countries carried out (hopefully) well-intentioned, (certainly) incompletely informed, (individually decided) closures of their national borders to 'people'[3] from another/other countries. The porosity[4] of the closures varied widely. COVID-19 does not respect sovereignty.
  • Globalization had matured to the point there were too few points of potential failure to be of concern. COVID-19 freed powerful, inconvenient, long-ignored geopolitical and commercial realities to push finance and economics into chaotic, angry disarray. Be resilient by Being, Buying and Working local is the new ‘smart’, but is up against embedded vested interests to maintain the status quo.
  • ‘Indexes’, especially those from famous, respected sources are usefully accurate. Globally, the only ‘agreed’ estimate of how many have died with or from COVID-19 is that the true number is at least one order of magnitude higher than the ‘official’ figure. The 2019 Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Global Heath Security Index (GHSI) rated the US and the UK first and second for ‘Health Security’. Very quickly, after 11 March 2020, their first and second places came to be for most pandemic deaths in G7 states.
  • 9. ‘Public health’ is not an oxymoron. The explosion of already globally serious inequality as COVID spread and mutated has clearly demonstrated there are two ‘publics’ in terms of health. One consists of the least ‘entitled’; the poor, the mostly non-white, the incarcerated, the displaced, and the uneducated, among other groups. Their well-being has fallen ever farther below that of the group whose wealth – which, perversely, has increased during the pandemic - and status has granted them ‘freedom’ from fears of the worst consequences of the virus.
  • Summiteers need to meet in person. Geopolitics has not ended after nearly a year without a single full f2f summit. The jury is still out on whether the next big international event, that is neither hybrid nor virtual, can safely be this year or not until 2022.
  • A universal value is that ‘life is precious’. Only for some, and sometimes. Japan’s now-resigned head of the postponed 2020 summer Olympics publicly stated more than once that those games “must be held” in 2021 “whatever the cost”. Trump clearly thinks only one life is truly ‘precious’.
  • The United Nations system would be an effective agent for action against the pandemic. The presentations of national leaders to the virtual, 75th anniversary General Assembly meeting showcased a near-total absence of common concern, intention, and effort by its member states. The lack of singular ‘focus’ is reflected by the fact that the Sec Gen, in 2020, called his flock to action more than eight times, and only twice in relation to the pandemic. His latest call, for a ‘global vaccine ceasefire’. Its effective implementation boggles the mind, and not least because of the world-wide evenness of access to and availability of (any) vaccine.
  • Leaders, by and large, lead for the good of their countries and citizens. Given the performance of the likes of Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, Xi, Modi, Orban, Iran’s Supreme Leader, ‘AMRO’, and all of Lebanon’s leaders, among others, ‘good’ leadership, globally, appears woefully insufficient. If Ralph Nader’s statement is true; that a leader’s main role is to groom their successor(s), the future may not be in good hands.
  • ‘Education’ was in good enough shape and its needs well enough widely understood to meet its challenges. We now know that teachers, students, parents, siblings, junior administrators, friends, janitors, cleaners, security staff, city and school bus drivers, school nurses, Special ed and Phys ed teachers, child-care operators and staff, maintenance workers, air quality support staff, contact tracers, and testing centre staff were not accounted for in the ‘understanding’. Late in the second month of 2021, in the second wave and as a third, variant-provoked wave threatens, the unevenness of intentions – let alone action - on what to do about learning, how to do it, and who should be responsible, has shown conventional ‘education’ for what it; 19th-century artifact in a 21st century crisis.
  • Established and respected ‘experts’ have impact. Since 11 March 2021, too many of the too-few experts with principles, and whose views contradicted the desires of their extremely non-expert leaders, have been sidelined, lied about, silenced and, in dictatorships, disappeared. As least the Biden administration is trying to ‘repair’ truth in the US with a return to evidence-based policy, but an ‘ignorant society’ will be of no help.
  • ‘Smart’, well-governed states succeed, of course. Singapore, a tiny, tightly controlled, very rich, cosmopolitan state was one of a very few countries whose early and detailed response to the pandemic was praised, world-wide. Then reality intervened with an embarrassing truth. The leaders forgot about the 10s of thousands of ‘foreign workers’ whose effort rescues Malay and Chinese Singaporeans from all manual labour. The workers’ crowded pavilions hosted an explosion of infections.
  • Democracy is good government. Indeed it may be, in relative terms, as Winston Churchill famously stated. But, as Freedom House and others have declared, a democratic recession is well underway. This has been amplified by the pandemic which offered many state leaders the opportunity to claim it necessary to concentrate ever-more responsibility and authority in their offices. It is hard to imagine an early democratic resurgence given the number of concurrent and mutually reinforcing wicked problems facing everyone.
  • Essential workers are those who are the most educated, accomplished and powerful. Many of the latter would have starved to death, and died if sickened, were it not for the workers the pandemic is proving are truly essential. They include the transport truck drivers, hydro repair teams, store cashiers, first responders, store shelf-stockers, delivery-drivers, personal support workers and trainee nurses. Many of them, perversely, had no choice but to continue to work because ‘working from home’ was neither a professional nor, often, a financial option for them.
  • A rich, developed, educated, democratic, hi-tech country can design and deploy nationally effective testing and contact tracing programs, even in a pandemic. With few, localized exceptions this didn’t happen and, from all indications as vaccines arrive, will not.
  • People know that it is best to be vaccinated, for both personal and social reasons. The estimates of people who do not want a vaccine vary widely, nationally and professionally, and continue a pattern-less change. An admittedly rough estimate today is that between 25 and 40 percent do not want or will resist vaccination. The almost certain arrival of vaccine passports may reduce those numbers.
  • The infrastructure of ‘highly-developed’, rich countries is fit enough for purpose. Not any more. COVID-19 has sensationally highlighted consequences of years of systems-wide, insufficient infrastructure maintenance and renewal. The recently dark, frozen and water-less Texas may be the newest poster-child for the costs of a long-term, undeserved infrastructure-superiority complex.
  • The scientific development and medical approval of vaccines would herald the beginning of bringing the pandemic under control. In fact, the ‘arrival’ of vaccines primarily exposed that more ‘hard times’ were ahead’ politically, economically, logistically and socially. Unfortunately, the (new) variants of the virus, until recently only ‘black swans’ have become bulls in a china shop, a space occupied by growing numbers of ‘long-haulers’ for which there are as yet no medicines, and continuing uncertainty about what pandemic control should, and could look like.
  • COVID-19 has been all bad news. Very, very bad, definitely. But not without redeeming features. ONE: 19th century education is being hauled into a 21st century demanding new ways of learning. TWO: Telemedicine has proven itself a very effective and efficient service; indeed a lifeline for many most in need. THREE: Pollution is down. FOUR: Flora and fauna in over-visited centres of tourism are enjoying rest and recovery. FIVE: The scourge of mental illness, long all but ignored, is now a mainstream concern. SIX: Leaders are acknowledging that their less-than stellar performance destroys any argument for continuing to exclude the young – the next leader cohort - and the disabled and discriminated-against, from the decision-making.
  • ‘Silos’ are bad. In these extremely stressful times of lock-downs, curfews, sickness and deaths, silos offer real and perceived shelter with family, friends and colleagues in familiar conditions. It may be too much to hope but, when the pandemic is ‘over’, perhaps silos can become less forts of fragmentation and more structures from which to practise collaborative interoperability.
  • 25. ‘Vaccine’ is a noun. It has become a pervasive adjective. VACCINE>diplomacy, apartheid, nationalism, dysfunction, roll-out, competition, disinformation, confusion, logistics, economics, discrimination, aid, tourism, trust, denial, efficacy, nationalist, guilt, criminal, metric, envy,…
  • Existing laws, regulations and standards would be sufficient to deal with a pandemic. Hardly a day goes by without at least one more law, somewhere, affecting how, where, and sometimes even if, one can live (safely, with others), move (travel, shop, go to school), or work (if one must). In almost every case, the variety of exceptions, the inconsistency of enforcement and the gaps in data mean very few know what laws exist and to whom they really apply.
  • Governments were telling the truth when stating they are financially strapped. Maybe, in some developing countries which have not been effectively looted by their leaders. But the US has now spent well over two trillions in COVID-19 response, Canada, in only eight months in 2020 spent CDN 284 billion, and the UK on 1 March, admitted to already spending US 284 billion, with another 55 billion ‘intended’.
  • People who need to be trusted are trusted. The PEW Research Centre (accessed 1 Mar 21) found the trust % in Western Europe to be: Military 76, Banks and Finance 63, Parliaments 43, and News/Media 41. In the US the numbers are: Military 80, Business Leaders 45, News/Media 40 and Elected Politicians 25. In Canada, the latest related figures are for 2017 – so well pre-pandemic, it was found 43 % trust government and 80 % ‘know’ the elites are out of touch with society at large..
  • The uniformed military should be a ‘last resort’ resource in a pandemic. The uniformed military of developed countries such as the US, the UK, and Canada have had to be called in time and again since 11 March 2020 to rescue logistics, operations and communications. Elsewhere, if and why the armed forces of a country became involved depended directly on the combination of the state of civil military relations and national public health structures. World-wide the two national factors are wildly different.
  • COVID-19 does not discriminate. Although the virus itself is more fatal for the old and the chronically ill than the young and healthy, the major determinant of the degree of discrimination is the context which greets the virus meets on its arrival. Inequality, inequity, poor public health, criminality, bad government/leader performance, extreme weather, and whether or not rules of law apply in fact, have, each and all, massively enhanced pandemic discrimination.
  • We will ‘return to normal’, sometime. It is increasingly acknowledged that there will be no ‘return’ to a normal we recognize. Indeed, we may not achieve a ‘normal’ we are happy with anytime soon.
  • COVID 19 is a wicked problem to be solved. Wicked problems do not ‘solve’. Every solution has consequences. The more impactful and demanding; i.e., wicked, is the problem solved, the greater the consequences, good as implied by ‘solved’, and bad as provoked by the law of unintended consequences. If great progress is made in reducing the severity of a wicked problem, it can only be hoped that the inevitable reactions to the progress do not include a new, different, or worse wicked problem.
  • Home will never be the same again. Being locked down, or having to work or study from home, or having to quarantine/isolate in poverty or ganger have changed ‘home’ mightily. Then again, ‘home’ has always been a work-in-progress situation. As time passes, those in the ‘home’ today age and pass on, and are ‘succeeded’ by others whose biases, assumptions and intentions are framed in and for different times.


So What for Leaders?

The 21st Century is already demanding ‘leaders’ deploy unprecedented, extraordinary and sustained honesty, intelligence, courage, and foresight. If they fail to rise to the ‘occasion’, it is less likely that much of humanity; stakeholder or shareholder or agent of change, will enjoy, let alone be able to contribute to, levels of human security that will be needed to underpin and sustain fear-free, safe and dignified living, moving and working.

All leaders, today’s and their successors, have to acknowledge two facts. One: Wilful blindness to inconvenient truths will incur rapidly rising costs. Two: The ‘conventional wisdom’ that underpins why they are leaders and how they lead needs major re-construction. The latter project should result in the establishment of broadly accepted policies, ways and means that recognize 1) crises are happening more and more frequently in concurrent multiples, and 2) focussing all time and effort and resources on only one of two or more concurrent crises is at least unwise.

The current global, if uneven, full-court press on COVID-19 will, sooner or later, no longer be necessary. The pandemic will stabilize at, at worst, as an emergency, but hopefully only as a problem because of advances in health sciences, vaccine technology and medical logistics. But at least until then, and possibly beyond, its existence is providing the crises associated with global warming a holiday from the intensity of attention they urgently need. Climate change consequences are already embedded as a decades-long, and unfortunately not implausibly, permanent wicked problem. It is a force multiplier of all other, and force generator of new, wicked problems, including COVID-19 and its inevitable successors, whose severity may be even more pronounced.

Specific tasks for leaders include:

- Improving the messaging. Words matter. Abandon calls for going ‘back’ to normal. Encourage going ‘forward’ with progress in appropriately shaping and managing threats and opportunities the future may hold.

- Re-build trust. Establish new ‘conventional wisdom’ in ways and with means that can be understood, by all whom are led, to be for the common good.

- Prepare appropriately. Learn to prepare for what will characterize much of the 21st century; the unavoidable arrival of two or more different, and differently demanding, concurrent or immediately consecutive crises. Do not ignore the value of luck, while acknowledging that the good are lucky more often than the bad. An example of ‘Good’ luck: The 2020/2021 global flu season for the northern hemisphere has been mild. But preparations were in place for a serious flu season. A example of ‘Bad’ luck: in February 2021, the much of the US experienced an extreme weather event that provoked a social catastrophe. Even a month after the event, some cities; Jackson, Mississippi, being one, still have to boil their water, so fragile was so much undermaintained infrastructure. Then there is ‘normal’ luck we all share: Since 11 March 2020 there have been no volcanic eruptions or earthquakes serious enough to tangibly interfere with effort on COVID-19 and other wicked problems.

- Introduce and implement policies and programs that appear more likely to foster global human well-being[5] than obstruct it. Interoperability and Leadingship are two concepts that should underpin them. The former acknowledges the diversity of context of the planet’s humanity and the universal desire for self-determination. The latter, increasingly deployed in the private sector, offers everyone with a contribution to make the trust-building confidence needed to know they are eligible to present it, and, at least, to be listened to.

- Engage on level terms with successors. Formally engage with and resource the young in time and in ways that ensure they are, both, helped to think deeply about what they may face and need to do as leaders, and, welcomed to inform current leadership cadres on how to do better.


So What for All of Us

Humanity at large needs to forcefully collaborate on action to sustain human well-being. This mission unfortunately will begin on a weak foundation, but one that can be strengthened if a number of things happen. Three are key.

One: After the pandemic calms to being only a problem, a significant proportion of the population of a majority of nations becomes willing (trust) and able (health and wealth) to experience a semblance of a predictable normality in their lives. Two: The ‘story’ of the pandemic is so recorded, accessible, and acknowledged that humanity is much less likely to be so unprepared, uncollaborative and disputatious when the next pandemic threatens. Three: Existing international organizations have to greatly improve their individual and collective performance. If this is not done, or, if new more responsive organizations are not stood up, the inevitable gaps and weaknesses in every field of human security will continue to provide openings for the next pandemic, and set the scene for a free-form, self-organizing global geopolitical competition that could be overseen or moderated by a new ‘leader’; China being the first to come to mind.

Not one of the three ‘keys’ will arrive in the absence of unprecedentedly collaborative effort. The goal is humanity security, when all living things can live, move and thrive on a planet that is sustainably protected and respected.

David Harries

Kingston, Ontario, Canada.  11 March 2021

[1] The coronavirus threat is global. So is the remedy. Therefore, a new normal can be only a hope until everyone is safe because none are unsafe.

[2] Climate change, fading democracy, mental illness, infrastructure failure, cyber insecurity, opioid addiction, domestic violence, delayed cancer treatment, civil wars, embedded and rising inequality, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, pollution, ……

[3] But rarely to planes or ships.

[4] Canada's border with the US has been CLOSED to all but "essential" travel for as long as I can remember. But the number of exceptions, known control failures, and near-comical successful rules-avoidance are fodder for daily national news.

[5] Humanity Security

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