When we started Risks & Ventures one of our plans was to regularly pick a different news story that concerned a topical risk issue and write about it, and it was our intention to get this underway on or around the 1st April.
Like many people’s plans these started to change around the middle of last month as SARS-CoV-2 spread from East Asia to Europe and became a global pandemic.
As this crisis developed we made a few attempts to draft new posts with some thoughts about what was going on, but faced with the vast volume of information that was already being written and shared about the Coronavirus – ranging from outstandingly informative through to criminally misleading – we didn’t know what to add that was not already being said about the situation; and as fulltime working professionals we have also been pre-occupied with our own businesses, clients and personal responsibilities.
On the other hand for a website that is supposed to write about risks, it would be very wrong of us not to make any post about what is the greatest and broadest global risk event in at least last forty years. (1) So here is a post about COVID-19 and Risk Management, with some of our observations about what has happened so far:
Everyone knows much more about risk management now.
Although some of us may, probably many of us, have found a psychological need to turn off our media streams at times during this pandemic, most of us have also probably in general been following the news more than usual, and while we have been doing this we will have seen the language of risk management used to an unprecedented extent with issues regularly raised including:
- the need to identify the nature of the threat and who is vulnerable;
- the use of mitigation measures that can be deployed against this threat, including those before, during and after an infection;
- the idea of risk acceptance; and,
- the understanding that every mitigation measure has counterpart challenges associated with it.
This last of these is most broadly illustrated in the economy versus health debate, which is certainly a complicated issue but far from the kind of binary decision it has been presented as in some quarters.
Overall however it is very likely that many people now have a better understanding of both the terminology and process of formal risk management than they perhaps did before the pandemic.
What works in one country or organisation doesn’t necessarily work for all.
Countries and businesses all have unique characteristics in terms of their assets, resources, liabilities, financial strength, laws or policies, demographics, geographies, cultures; and in the case of countries also health care, social systems and stocks of personal protective equipment. What is a suitable approach or mitigation technique for one country or organisation may not be feasible or even desirable in another.
Good risk management starts with understanding who you are, what you have (your assets) and what your are trying to do (your objectives). It also involves understanding your threat and vulnerabilities and one of the problems with this coronavirus threat was the initial lack of knowledge about factors including how severe it really is and how it effects different people most obviously in terms age and existing health conditions, but also the timelines involved with infection, symptoms and recovery. This has given politicians, business leaders and individuals some extraordinarily tough decisions to make.
These decisions however will always need some tailoring to the specific circumstances of each country or organisation, and this applies not just in the case of pandemics but universally in every other risk-related decision.
We say “initial lack of understanding” by the way it’s because although there is still clearly there is much more to be analysed and known about this virus, not least of which involves the development of vaccines and drugs to treat COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, much more is already known about this virus now than a month ago and this position of knowledge is growing every day.
When analysing a situation it’s important to compare apples with apples.
In a 24 hours media environment it is understandable that so much headline space was being given over to basic raw data like the number of infections and fatalities in different geographical areas.
However due to the differential factors listed in the last paragraph and in this case very crucially also others such as: who was being tested for SARS-CoV-2, how widespread this testing was, and how fatalities were being recorded, the continual comparison of these headline numbers in a league table-style is overly simplistic.
This isn’t to say they these numbers aren’t completely meaningless either, however they are most meaningful only within the specific context that they are being used, and the cherry-picking of statistics for political reasons notwithstanding, decision-makers in any risk-related issue must always make sure they understand what the statistics and indicators they are using mean in their own specific context. Apples ideally should always be compared with apples.
The question of what is a “good” response and a “bad” response to stressful events works at different levels.
To clarify, by “stressful events” we mean events that causes stresses in systems, not necessarily personal feeling of stress, although clearly these are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts.
We have seen countries and businesses react in different ways, and in the case of countries, the extent to which the pandemic has caused fatalities has generally been used as a popular yardstick for whether country has responded well or not it, and nor would be try to dispute or minimize the importance of preserving life either for a moment.
However other effects of the pandemic including but not limited to changes to levels of poverty, rates of business survival or failure, government subsidies, social and educational patterns, personal freedoms and environmental conditions amongst many others all have some short and many long-term consequences.
These effects and the analysis of these effects is in some cases going to take years to show, and whether Sweden or Japan or South Korea or Germany responded “better” or “worse” than each other, or anyone else just cannot be known at this time. Similar when making other risk-related decisions usually there will almost always be short and long-term consequences, and sometimes what is good in the short-term might not be good over time.
Good communication in a crisis is really, really important but it isn’t easy either.
In Western Europe and parts of North America this pandemic has led to what must be an unprecedent level of government communication. This is understandable because governments have also been restricting personal freedoms in a way that is unprecedented in the lifetimes of the vast, vast majority of the people living in these areas. Again this isn’t intended to be political commentary, this is just stating an objectively demonstrable fact.
A challenge governments have had is striking the right balance between reassuring, protecting and scaring their citizens. Some businesses have a related problem too: if you are open for work still and you want to share that fact, you also need to show that you are behaving a responsible part of society and not either breaking distancing recommendations or rules, or exposing your staff to unnecessary harm.
The 2m (or in some places 1.5 m) social distancing rule is an example of this. It’s a great, clear and generally effective recommendation, easily understandable and easily meme-able. Yet there have been circumstances where this has also been viewed in very binary terms by individuals receiving that message e.g. “inside the 2m and I’ll catch it, outside and I’ll be fine”. When really it’s a case of 2m being the best practical estimate that given what is know about this coronavirus and if the measure is observed on the scale of a population, sufficient people won’t fall sufficiently sick to the extend of overwhelming the available health services, rather than a full-proof margin of individual personal safety.
Getting the right balance is a common problem managers face in communicating about threat, vulnerabilities and mitigation measures: go too light and people will ignore you, go too heavy and you will cause unnecessary disturbance and fear, and striking both the right balance and method of communication is a challenging prospect even when times are good.
We are going to leave this an open post for further revisions as other observations come up. We’ll make a note here if there are changes.
We hope that everyone reading this is as healthy, safe and secure as possible in the circumstances. There will be good days ahead.
(1) We understand that a case could me made that climate change is a more significant crisis, however the slower moving pace of these changes have made it a less urgent one to most decision-makers and less immediately consequential for most people.