How a seemingly minor viral mutation has brought the world to a standstill
By: JP Sturmberg & L Hoemeke for ISSCSH
As systems and complexity scientists interested in health, we’re trying to untangle health problems in their context—and now, like everyone else, trying to stay healthy while we’re work from home. We know that for decades to come, health systems, public health researchers, and many others will undoubtedly be studying the pandemic of COVID19, the virus that seemingly has brought the world to a standstill.
The COVID19 outbreak has clearly illustrated the complexities of global health—not only is the response to the virus highly variable among individuals, age groups, and groups of people with various chronic diseases, our human responses vary from acceptance to concern to frank fear. Not only does COVID19 affect the health of individuals, it also affects the functioning of health systems. The actions of containment have stopped many forms of human activity and threaten to dive the economy into a “great depression.”
In many ways, we are observing the characteristics and behaviors of a complex adaptive system. The rise of disease from this mutated common virus has resulted in a seemingly sudden out-of-proportion-change (nonlinearity of response) in all behaviors, permeating all aspects of our societal system. What used to be regarded as stable suddenly transitioned to be exceedingly unstable. (The system reached a tipping point.)
The consequences are what we have experienced over the last couple of weeks. The entire behavior of the world’s “social system” has seemingly quickly moved toward a chaotic state (emergence of the system), a state in which people horde toilet paper and food, locking themselves up in a (perceived) safe place. Governments are mandating cessation of public social activities, and many are ordering the closure of their borders.
COVID19 pushed our (unstable) societal systems off the cliff
COVID19 is, in fact, a tipping point. In many ways, it tipped our unsustainable and unstable societal systems over a cliff. Many systems thinkers have pointed out that it only takes a small change to lead to this type of a large effect. This non-linear response results from the inter-connectivity of the characteristics and behaviors of a complex system’s sub-system parts.
Instability invisibly builds up over time and then erupts suddenly and forcefully. In a complex system, “large” events do happen more frequently than expected based on the normal distribution of events. Seemingly impossible events, called Black Swans , follow a so-called power-law or log linear distribution. (We’ll talk more about Black Swans in a future post.)
COVID19 is demonstrating that no one is in control
Self-organization is a key characteristic of complex adaptive systems. Think about events that seem to just happen in your household, your community, city or country without anyone having overall control. The driving forces of self-organization are “tacit agreements” about behaviors, expectations, and goals. These underpin the bottom-up nature of activities that, over time, push a system in one of two ways – making it adaptively stable or letting it emerge to instability and ultimately tipping it into chaos.
The outcome is impossible to predict. However, systems and complexity science tools provide the means to make the interconnected and interdependent processes visible and offer insights to better understand the behavior of systems.
Join us in using systems and complexities science tools as we explore the interdependencies and dynamics of the COVID19 pandemic and their consequences over the next weeks and months.