Can COVID-19 Make Us Better At Handling The Unknown?

We’ll never rid ourselves of the unknown, nor should we attempt to—but we can do better at incorporating it into our models for public health and economic crises.

One scene repeating itself in communities and apartment complexes across America right now is that of two people murmuring in a secluded spot about what exactly is going on.

“You just don’t know,” says a guy as he reaches over to one of the hand sanitizer dispensers on a counter. “You just don’t know.”

It’s not clear if he is talking about getting sick or pulling his money out of the markets. But it doesn’t matter.

Ignorance has been one of biggest challenges posed so far by what might be the first nationwide natural disaster-style event in American history. And obviously it’s bigger than America. Even if the pandemic – hopefully – never exacts the toll forecast in researchers’ worst-case scenarios, fear of the unknown has sent shockwaves through society.

It doesn’t have to be this way

I’m a technology executive who harnesses software to help property management teams in multifamily housing perform their best under pressure, whether it’s avoiding risk, delivering quality customer service, or frankly both. The coronavirus is extraordinary because it has exposed not only our vulnerability to health threats but, also importantly, to health scares. In the thick of the information age, we’re having an extremely hard time coping with the unfamiliar.

We’ll never rid ourselves of the unknown, nor should we attempt to. But we can do better at incorporating it into our models for public health and economic crises. Most importantly, we need to stop thinking two-dimensionally – only considering, for example, how the virus might spread from person to person – to a more universal view of how crises can and will occur no matter what.

Remove the silos

First, it’s time to remove the silos that separate aspects of life that are now closely intertwined, like politics, public health and financial markets. Initially, it seemed politicians in different parts of the world ignored the experts and resisted taking dramatic action on coronavirus because they didn’t want to roil markets and societal stability. As the pandemic worsened, the markets tanked anyway due to a loss in confidence in short-term growth. Everyone was acting out of fear of the unknown.

Crises of this scale don’t just affect public health or the economy. We need to anticipate how one will affect the other. To do that, our emergency plans need to incorporate a second change: more data from officials, doctors, financiers and others. That means we need to either develop or utilize systems across the public and private sector that can speak to one another and homogenize data more easily. That means data needs to be normalized as much as possible in order to be compared and related.

Invest in analytics

Where it can’t, computational intelligence needs to rise to the occasion. Google, Britain-based BenevolentAI and others have been working on tests to help combat coronavirus. That’s great. But a clearinghouse for their efforts hasn’t coalesced.

We need to invest and believe far more in analytics. Canadian startup BlueDot, for example, used artificial intelligence to identify the coronavirus in Wuhan, China nine days before the World Health Organization first sounded alarms. Public health officials should be using the best tools to head off pandemics.

A broader view in the crises would make us more what writer and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “anti-fragile.” Societies that break under stress are fragile. Groups that survive challenges are robust. But those who not only survive but improve after a crisis are “antifragile,” according to Taleb.

We will get through the coronavirus. Let’s also make sure we’re better for it.