The whole process of going through the different stages of the coronavirus crisis has shown weaknesses, stress points, structural, managerial, political and systemic challenges or mere blunt misconducts and ignorance in our society.
It has shown that we are not prepared for something that is unexpected and requires immediate coordination and cooperation on a large scale. There is a lot of goodwill and intentions but overall our capabilities are lacking in a dynamic situation where there is no clear pre-meditated rulebook and response manual.
It should not be any surprise that the weakest links are usually the command structures where the top tells the bottom what to do without a clear understanding or better knowledge what’s the real situation.
In some private sector companies, this has been realised and implemented years if not decades ago. The decision-making power is delegated to the lowest level possible and the employees have the authority to handle the situations as they see fit with common sense. Startups are working in a chaos situation every day. They are in a process to figure out the market and find their own appropriate response with a scalable, cost-effective solution. When they find it they are able to stabilise their operations and become a regular company that maintains and improves its processes.
The pretence of knowledge becomes unbearable when combined with time pressure and putting people’s lives at risk by the minute. Decisions and non-decisions are both choices with consequences. So is omitting to do something that is available but disregarded as inconvenient or not preferred outcome. The latter cases have been clearly demonstrated by some governments when handling crisis responses. Private sector help, resources and capabilities were disregarded because they did not fit the political agenda or the view that only the public sector should handle everything.
This rigid bureaucratic mind-set is tolerated or even favoured in normal times when the outcomes are not too obvious to the stakeholders to be seen easily. In times of crisis improvising and trying to do the right and humane thing require exceptional civil courage and selflessness. It may have negative consequences on your career advancement or bring unwanted attention. Extreme situations bring the best and worst in people, but also in organisations.
Turf wars and active blocking by different public departments have slowed down proper responses and prevented different alternatives and solutions to be experimented and provided to the market. In case of masks and ventilators, the main issue may not have been the actual resources but the steps and hurdles to start quickly manufacturing and producing the required products in total compliance with all the regulations and stipulations.
No company is willing to go through long and uncertain processes that are dependent on bureaucratic approvals and processing times that are in normal times months if not years, and the outcome, after all, may still be simple on/off decision without iterations or adjustments to get everything right before getting any revenues or certainty that the market is still there with enough demand to justify the whole exercise. Marc Andreessen addressed this issue with his timely article It’s time to build some weeks ago.
It looks like our public sector decision-making, structures and organisations are still in the industrial age where messages were sent with letters and telegrams. The response times and overall complexity was on a different level, as was the total population on the planet. Globalisation has shrunken the world literally into our palm where we hold the most powerful tool in the world, a smartphone capable of influencing and reaching the whole planet in a few seconds across the globe.
Pretence of Easiness
Digital does not mean easy. Capabilities are not the actualisation. The fact that you could potentially do something does not mean that in reality it makes sense, nor you can or that you even should do something.
Even though it’s easier than ever to reach customers in every corner of the world digitally and with a marginal or any costs, life is not that simple. We have many human constructs, rules, pacts and mental blocks that are not evident for the observer. They become clear only for the active, those who are trying to build and create something new.
The most profound experience you can have is to look Earth from space and see that there are no borders and there’s only a tiny shell protecting all life called atmosphere in the middle of dark vast space. At least, this is what many people say who have had the privilege to travel to orbit or even further in space.
This perspective is easy to miss when you’re stuck to your close quarters or familiar neighbourhood. Local legislation, nationalism and protectionism add hurdles in every nation-state and in a different level and manner. This is complex in domestic level but try to do that on an international scale. It becomes practically impossible or extremely expensive trying to be compliant and aware of all the quirks and oddities of local lawmakers and regulators when all you have is a smartphone in your pocket and the potential to do something. Think about a young student, pensioner or bright kid in a developing world. The rules are the same for them and the multinational corporations.
Digitalisation does not solve this issue. It is a public policy issue. Modern-day piracy started to raise headlines this year and EU nation-states and other governments carried it out worldwide. They started to confiscate private property and break international treaties and laws in the name of national interest. These acts may be understandable and reasoned with the prisoner’s dilemma or other explanations, yet they do not make them any more acceptable. Sub-optimisation and short-termism can be politically the right move but it hurts us all together and makes everyone worse off in the big picture and in the longer term, in the planetary scale. For example, viruses are dumb (or smart) enough to ignore national borders, red tape and tariffs. They can roam freely across the globe and cause havoc thanks to lack of coordination and cooperation from their hosts.
If your international partners cannot trust you anymore in time of crisis how do you think they are going to react in the future? We already have rogue states that are bad actors in the global arena causing active harm and practising double standards in normal times. Now, it seems that a rational approach may be to consider every nation-state and bureaucracy as a possibly harmful and self-interested party that is protecting their own interest at the cost of individuals and the people they are supposed to serve and protect. Ignorance is not a very convincing defence and it does not help bring us any close to any real solutions either. Of course, this is nothing new (see e.g. public choice theory).
If you were to follow and believe your national health organisation you were playing catch-up game ever since the Coronavirus first appeared in China. The best information sources and prepared organisations and individuals were able to start preparing themselves and brace others weeks if not months before official responses. The information was there for anybody to find and use. It was just a matter of choice and awareness. It’s your choice like Christopher Peterka states in a slightly different context.
The final part of this article focuses on outcomes and choices we have. Read the first part.
This is the third part of the article. The other parts are:
– Post-Corona new normal (1)
– Second-order consequences of post-corona new normal (2)
– The new post-corona world (4).