A Jigsaw Puzzle with no Picture
Driving through a bank of thick fog is a hazardous enterprise. You can hardly see a thing and have very few points on which you can reliably orient yourself. This means that you have to drive slowly so you can brake in time if some vehicle suddenly emerges and crosses your path or some other obstacle looms up in your line of sight. Driving by sight is the only way you’re going to get out of such thick fog safely.
A car driver in a bank of thick fog is a pretty accurate description of the situation in which each and every one of us now find ourselves, and particularly those decision-makers who bear tremendous responsibility in these times of the corona pandemic.
Driving by sight
Obviously such a metaphor, like many metaphors, has its weak point in that it doesn’t cover all the details of the situation. But if it at least manages to get at the core of the situation then it’s useful because it helps us better understand exactly where we now are.
Driving by sight is a skill that’s long been out of fashion in the countries of the industrialised world in which market and profit planning – sometimes against our better judgement, but based on faith in a plan of unlimited economic growth – has been elevated as one of the key credos of a future that’s controllable and manageable. In many places it’s a skill that’s been completely lost. At the same time a focus on a company’s quarterly results in the interests of shareholder value has encouraged and indeed promoted another kind of short-sightedness over the decades. Not just shareholders and supervisory boards but also highly paid management consultants have drawn great profit from the loss of skills and abilities that this engenders.
We need stamina
And so now after just a few weeks in which we have gained our very first insights into the mode of operation of this novel virus which is so extremely dangerous because we have neither medicine nor vaccine for it, the calls for a rapid return to “normal times” are becoming ever louder. “And quite right they are,” you might be thinking. Well, whether they are right is something that remains to be seen. But such calls are certainly understandable. Only precisely because they are so understandable those leaders in positions of responsibility need great courage and foresight not to give in to them. They need to slow down, take their time and ask people in the country to do the same before they make the next correct decision at the earliest possible point in time – which, with the benefit of hindsight, may turn out to be the wrong one. Right here and now what we need is resilience, reasonableness, a willingness to learn and stamina.
An equation of many unknowns
We are learning collectively just how difficult action and decision-making are in highly uncertain times. And when we look abroad we see how differently not just decision-makers but also the people are acting and reacting. This corona pandemic has plunged us into a situation of unprecedented complexity. It’s an equation whose factors are unknown, a jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of pieces that lacks a picture. We need to act rationally if we are to form these pieces into a picture – at least until medicine or a vaccine is found.
It’s about interfacing and harmonising medical or health aspects with economic and financial considerations, individual and family-related mental health issues, social psychology, and the whole not just on the national but the European and ultimately the global level.
A question of facts
We‘ve become accustomed to making decisions and forecasts based on the most exhaustive survey of the situation and the most precise knowledge of the data. We can form an opinion on almost anything using figures, facts and data, and base the determinations we make on such opinions. This holds true for the personal level, for instance when it comes to buying cars, electronic devices or mattresses, just as it equally applies to the political level for policy-making on the local, state and federal level. We’ve learnt to make plans and we feel safe when we’ve a plan in our pocket – even though we’re well aware that reality can sometimes intervene and make us change it. We’ve assimilated all this and have learnt how to deal with “residual uncertainty”. Only now we’re learning that we have to make decisions without having all the facts and data at our fingertips. We have to make sense of what we do know, of what seems plausible to us, and change our behaviour accordingly.
A false conclusion
Even so there are some people who have made a false interpretation of what has been done in Germany over the past few weeks. The early restrictive measures of lockdown and social distancing put in place against the pandemic have fortunately led to the comparatively mild progression of the pandemic. The healthcare system hasn’t teetered on the brink of collapse, there’s been no sudden spike in the numbers of the sick and dead. But if the spread of the pandemic has been mild, this is precisely because of the measures that were put in place. And yet amazingly this has led many people to conclude that after all it really isn’t all that bad and its effects have all been wildly exaggerated. It’s as though we’d jumped out of a falling plane and had just managed to activate our parachutes in the nick of time. And now impatient with our slow and safe descent to the ground, we decide to cut through the very chords that support us.
It would be instructive to turn our gaze to other countries like Spain, France, Italy, and not least of all the USA. What is happening there is part of the global granular evidence base and show what could also be happening here had we not reacted so smartly and so swiftly.
And when I see under the banner of freedom in North American states how healthcare workers are threatened and abused because they dare to stand as warnings in the way of a motorcade of hysterically honking, Stars and Stripes swinging protestors demanding their free right to die, then I could lose my faith in what we call basic common sense.
It’s about self-control
A lot of ink has flown and much breath has been spent on writing and talking about complexity and the management of complexity, and acting and decision-making in situations of uncertainty. Right here and now it’s a matter of resilience. It’s a matter of acting smartly and not taking the third step before the first. This calls for intelligence but also for the ability for self-control. To be in control of a situation we must first and foremost be in control of ourselves.
This is not merely a major challenge but also a great opportunity for us to learn and develop. Not just in terms of solidarity and willingness to help others – in our immediate neighbourhoods as well as our European neighbours and also in international cooperation. But also in terms of the challenges awaiting us in the coming years and decades.
When it comes to the complex interdependencies that are now changing the climate of our planet for the worse, this might even be a question of our very survival. Yet for that particular jigsaw puzzle we already have a picture.