coronavirus, COVID19, Design, Feedback, pandemic, politics, systems thinking, testing, truth
The basement in the rented Woburn house was not particularly pleasant. Cold, damp, and dark, there were only four small basement windows and even these were cluttered with spider webs. One day, in order to try to make the place marginally more usable for my three small kids, I removed all the spider webs. The next day, the basement was swarming with hornets!
We had an oil burning furnace in that basement. The landlord cautioned me before we even rented it, that a pair of knobs should be used to make sure that the water level in glass vial be kept between two marks. This gauge looked like the gauge in a level.
I glanced at the gauge every so often. Initially, I checked it every day or so. But the level never moved. So, I began checking it every week. But it still never moved. It never seemed to move for two years. One day, I glanced at it, and to my horror, the gauge was almost completely empty.
Now, I was faced with a dilemma. Which of these two knobs was I supposed to turn? There were no labels. There hadn’t been any when I rented the property. Of course, I should have asked the owner more questions during the walk-through. And, then I should have immediately made my own labels. But I hadn’t.
I could not recall which knob would cause the fluid level to rise. I decided to try it. I just opened it a little bit. Nothing. I watched closely. I waited. Nothing. As in the illustration above, there were no marks either on the knobs or on metal behind them. So, I wanted to return the first knob to its initial position. But in my hurry to “fix” the problem, it hadn’t occurred to me to put a little mark on the knob and the background so that I would at least be able to return it to the original position.
Well, okay but it was too late for that now. I waited. Nothing. I turned the first knob back to where I thought it was. The glass was still nearly empty. Was it slightly less empty than it had been? Or was it slightly more empty? I wasn’t really sure. I should have also marked the level very carefully. I didn’t.
So, the glass tube was nearly empty. I did definitely remember that I had been told this was a very dangerous situation! I had tried one knob and it hadn’t seem to do anything. I decided to try the other knob. I turned it a little. Nothing. I waited. Nothing. At this point, the sweat was pouring down the inside of my undershirt. I wasn’t really clear what might happen if I failed. Could the boiler actually blow up? Could it cause a fire? Or would I be lucky and it would just ruin the furnace?
I opened the second knob a bit farther. Nothing. I waited. I opened it a bit farther. Nothing. I opened it a bit farther. Nothing.
Then, suddenly, the vial began to fill. Rapidly! Too rapidly! I quickly turned the second knob back to what I hoped had been its original position. The vial was still filling. Try as I might, I could not get the vial to stop filling!
The glass vial had broken. Luckily I had not been hit by the flying glass. I turned off the furnace and called the owner. Eventually, it was fixed. In a few months, we moved to Westchester, New York.
Perhaps few people have had the exact experience I had with an oil burner, but I suspect almost everyone has travelled to a new place on vacation or a business trip or visiting a friend and decided to take a shower at some point. (Think back to the pre-pandemic days).
If you are in most bathrooms for the first time, you really have no idea how to arrange the knobs for a reasonable shower temperature. If you move the knob(s) and feel the change almost immediately, you can quickly arrange things so that you have a comfortable shower. In some houses or hotels, however, if you move the knob, there is a significant delay before you feel any change in the water temperature. You might arrange it so the water is perfect. You get in the shower, and you get your self soapy and …
You are suddenly being boiled alive! So, you step out of the scalding water, and drip water all over the floor and go back round to the controls and turn the knobs until it feels comfortable again. You’ve learned your lesson. So you wait. Still comfy. Good. In you go. Ah, feels nice…
Suddenly you are being sprayed with ice water!
Think back and you’ve quite likely experienced something like this. If the feedback is delayed a bit, it makes it harder to adjust things. And, if the feedback for your actions is delayed a lot, it makes the adjustment very difficult indeed. Of course, if you have experience with that particular system or you have a decent model of how the system works, then, you can do a much more reasonable job of adjustment.
Guess what? This is one of the factors that makes “opening the economy back up” extremely hard to do safely. I didn’t say “impossible” but very difficult. If you decrease social distancing regulations and people respond to those regulations by doing precisely as you’ve directed, it will be at least a week before you have reliable feedback about whether your actions have been too little lifting of restrictions, just right, too much or way too much. (It’s quite possible the “Goldilocks Zone” between surging cases way beyond hospital capacity and destroying the economy is very narrow).
And, now let’s imagine that you are one of those politicians who looks at the data and immediately realizes and admits that you opened things up way too much. You retrench. You close things down. Once again, there will be a delay before the rate of new infections, new hospitalizations, and deaths starts to decline again. Meanwhile, even if you, the mayor or governor is wise enough to savvy to the delayed feedback, many of your constituents will not be.
“What do you mean, you’re closing back down!!? You just opened up two weeks ago! I brought everybody back, assured my customers it was fine, bought all this inventory — and you shut me down!? Now, I’ve been shut down a week and so what? The cases keep going up anyway. Your order is bullshit and has no impact!”
If you bow to that pressure, it will be a disaster.
If you are a mayor governor, you also need to realize that your orders themselves have zero impact on the pandemic. What does matter, but which is influenced by your orders, is actual behavior. It may seem an obvious point, but it seems to be overlooked. If for example, you have been honest and open with the public, other things being equal, you will get greater compliance and faster compliance. If you have not been honest, on the other hand, you will get (other things being equal) less complete compliance and slower compliance. As leader, the feedback between what you do and what you see in terms of cases will take a least a week just based on the nature of the disease. But there may also be additional time lag because of the fact that people will not all comply. It would be really good to have measures in place of aggregate compliance in order to understand what is really happening.
Sadly, COVID19 is worse — much worse — in this regard than the shower example. I don’t just mean that the outcome is potentially worse than an uncomfortable shower. It is, obviously. What I mean is that the other examples, though they had delay, were (at least till I got in the loop) basically linear systems.
Spread of contagious diseases is nothing like that!
It is exponential growth. Exponential growth can be explosive growth.
You may recall from your high school days, that rabbits were introduced to Australia and for a time bred for food. At some point, they began to undergo a population explosion and became serious pests for Australia.
You might find this paragraph of particular interest:
“The population explosion was ascribed to the disappearance of native predators, but the emergence of a hardier breed by natural selection has subsequently been attributed to their spread.” — op. cit. (4/28/2020)
Awkwardly worded, but I take it to mean that one of the effects of exponential growth is that it can result in hardier breeds. I suppose that the hardier breeds also help foster that exponential growth. A resurgent pandemic also means an explosion — not just in the number of humans who are affected — it also means an explosion in the number of COVID19 viruses on the planet. Therefore, there is a much greater population from which adaptive mutations of various kinds can arise.
There is already evidence that COVID19 has evolved and now exists in different strains. Some strains may be more virulent than others. The degree of cross-strain immunity is as yet unknown. (Update?)
Imagine you live in a straw house. It’s actually pretty comfortable most of the time. But one night it gets really cold, so you decide to start a fire for warmth. Of course, you realize that your house is straw so you aim to be very very careful. And you are. And, then two sparks from your fire spew out in two different directions and set your entire house on fire. Of course, you do your best to put it out. But you don’t. It got away from you.
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