On 11 March, the WHO characterised the COVID-19 as a pandemic. The probability to see the WHO, finally, accepting the label had been rising everyday. Indeed, we have witnessed the proliferation of clusters and outbreaks globally, that led to the emergence of multiple epidemic centres.

Since we first published this article, the pandemic intensified. On 28 March 2020, we shall pass 600.000 cases confirmed, for those countries who are still testing people, and for those cases that are identified. We shall also probably reach 30.000 deaths globally. The U.S. and Italy have surpassed China in numbers of cases. Italy and Europe overtook China in number of deaths. 177 countries are infected. As we expected, even though China tries to restart its economy, it cannot as the remaining part of the world faces the COVID-19.

At the beginning of March 2020, the outbreak in China had peaked. However, by 3 March, confirmed cases had spread to more than 80 countries, by 8 March to 100 countries by 11 March to 114 countries (Andrea Shalal, Stephanie Nebehay, “WHO warns of global shortage of medical equipment to fight coronavirus“, Reuters, 3 March 2020; WHO situation report 8 March 2020, 11 March 2020).

By 3 March, three countries faced serious epidemic clusters: Italy, Iran, and South Korea (Ibid., John Hopkins CSSE, Tracking the COVID-19 spread in real-time. Meanwhile, six countries also struggled against outbreak clusters: France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Spain, and the United States (Ibid.). One week later, on 8 March, France Germany, the U.S. and Spain seemed to be well on their way to declare they are in a situation of epidemic (WHO update, ibid.). New clusters then touched new countries, such as the U.K., the Netherlands, Belgium etc. (Ibid.). Actually, it is the whole of Europe that is now prey to the pandemic.

On the other hand, the epidemic outbreak seemed to slow down in one of South Korea’s cluster, which also faced a lower case-fatality rate than other countries, probably because of its extensive amount of testing (50/7134 = 0,7%).

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The WHO was reluctant to declare a pandemic. On 2 March 2020, it reasserted its assessment according to which:

“What we see are epidemics in different parts of the world, affecting countries in different ways and requiring a tailored response.”

WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 24 February 2020

It is only on 11 March that the word pandemic was accepted:

“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.
We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”

WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020

What lies ahead is uncertain. Yet, we must prepare for it. The uncertainty and coming changes are the focus of this article and of the next ones.

Here, we look at two major characteristics of change. First, we articulate the difference between systemic and collective changes on the one hand, specific and particular ones, on the other. We give specific examples in the case of the COVID-19, at different levels of analysis. We look at the case of the disruption of supply of personal protective equipment and at the impact of travel disruption beyond tourism. Then, at the second level of analysis, we briefly contrast potential different risks’ conditions with the examples of Monaco and Singapore.

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With the second part, we highlight that, to envision future changes, we must first shed an implicit and false belief that assumes a return to the past will follow the COVID-19 outbreak.

In future articles, we shall identify critical uncertainties, those that forbid a return to the past. To do so, we shall use the analytical methodology we created to help analysts in risk management. This method, “the chess analogy”, allows for identifying not only the factors and variables influencing an issue but also, and critically, their relationships and dynamics (see our online course: From Process to Creating your Analytical Model for Strategic Foresight and Warning, Early Warning, Risk Management and Scenario-building). Notably for complex issues such as epidemics and pandemics, it is impossible to continue only with old inadequate analytical models separating the world in distinct categories such as economy, health, social, political etc.

Systemic and collective changes frame specific impacts

The first crucial point to understand and plan ahead for changes is to distinguish and articulate between levels of analysis.

Levels of analysis

Indeed, the coming changes will form a larger generic framework within which particular situations will unfold. We can use the classical levels of analysis used in social sciences. In international relations, for example, following Kenneth Waltz, the first level of analysis is the individual level, the second level is the state (or polity) level and the third level is the system (Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, 2001 [1959]).

Here, we address the general or collective dynamics, i.e. the second and third level of analysis. Each actor will then need to assess through specific research and commissioned reports how processes located at these levels, collective and systemic, impact their particular situation. Indeed, impacts will vary wildly according to the specificities of each actor.

One factor, different impacts at different levels

The case of the disruption of supply of personal protective equipment

Different impacts for different actors

If we take the example of an economic actor, the impact of the COVID-19 multiple epidemic outbreaks depends upon the activity of the actor. For instance, the WHO warned about

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“the severe and increasing disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment – caused by rising demand, hoarding and misuse.”

WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 3 March 2020

This factor will negatively impact all health actors in their mission, as well as individuals seeking protection from the COVID-19. It will impact both contagion and capacity to survive the disease.

On the other hand, the very same factor will positively impact local manufacturers of these equipments. Some small companies that may have known difficulties in facing foreign competition, for example from China, will find markets that had disappeared. Their geographical proximity and the fact they share the same experiences as their clients – indeed they are part of the same polity – will now give them a competitive advantage compared with outsourced supply. Furthermore, and to a point, the law of supply and demand will favour them. They may thus thrive for as long as the epidemic lasts. This may be enough for them to rebound.

When impacts feed back on other levels

Now, the accumulation of particular impacts at the first level of analysis will in turn have consequences at the collective and systemic levels.

For example, the rediscovery of the advantages of local production may, in the longer term, alter the systemic level, favouring and speeding the emergence of a new phase of national or local production. Meanwhile, the globalised liberal paradigm will be further adversely impacted. Various factors will condition the possibility, scope and speed of the changes at higher levels.

The case of the disruption of person exchanges and travels: beyond tourism

Similarly, the COVID-19 outbreak will unfavourably impact activities involving in person exchanges and travels. This is most obvious for airlines, cruise ships and long haul tourism. On the other hand, those companies that will succeed in providing a similar service while protecting their clients may develop and thrive. For example, the outbreak already benefits online activity.

The example of tourism and related activities is obvious. However, it is important not to stop there. We should also mention as dependent upon the same factors, scientific cooperation – yet crucial for example for the development of quantum information science (see our mapping of actors in Quantum, AI, and Geopolitics (3): Mapping The Race for Quantum Computing and following articles), the famous shuttle diplomacy developed since Kissinger, and Track II diplomacy (e.g. Jeffrey Mapendere, “Track One and a Half Diplomacy and the Complementarity of Tracks“, COPOJ – Culture of Peace Online Journal, 2(1), 2000, 66-81). What, then, will be the cascading impact on diplomacy and peace. Meanwhile, international organisations and their work are also impacted. For instance, the IMF-World Bank Group 2020 spring meetings have been transformed “to a virtual format” (IMF, “Questions & Answers about the 2020 Spring Meetings“, Last Updated: March 3, 2020). This may have further consequences on the systemic level as the very actors operating at that level are directly impacted.

Different possible fates for different polities: Monaco and Singapore

Similarly, moving to the second level of analysis, the COVID-19 outbreak will impact different polities in different ways.

Potential risks for Monaco?

If we take city-states cases, we may wonder about the vulnerability to the COVID-19 of, for instance, the principality of Monaco. The current open source assessment is optimistic yet highlighting the importance of the outbreak (Amy Cartledge, “Prince Albert II responds to COVID-19 in Monaco“, Monaco Tribune, 3 March 2020). Considering Monaco’s demographics, reliance on sporting and cultural events and luxury entertainment, we may wonder about possible economic impacts should the outbreak last throughout March and beyond.

Indeed, wealthy and very wealthy people also count people who are older and thus more likely to face the worst effects of the COVID-19, were they to be infected. For example and as indication, if we use the 2019 Forbes’ list of the The World’s Billionaires, and look at the 20 richest billionaires, we see that they are 66 years old as average, ranging from 89 to 35 years old. Fourteen of them are above 60 years old, and only four are less than fifty years old. Thus, they are more at risk to suffer from the COVID-19 than others. True enough, they may also mingle less but do they? This is only one indication, and as far as our Monegasque example is concerned, a detailed analysis would be needed. Nonetheless, this indication reveals a possible specific vulnerability.

In any case, a country such as Monaco depends on luxury gatherings, events, wealth and security for rich but also older people (e.g. Gouvernement Princier, “Practical measures to ensure that Monaco remains a dream destination“). It may well need to develop new and specific strategies to handle the possible impacts of the COVID-19 on its fundamentals, according to various scenarios.

Resilience for Singapore?

By contrast, Singapore, everything being equal and despite the existence of an epidemic cluster, is most probably more resilient. Indeed, Singapore, under the leadership of then Head of Civil Servants Peter Ho embarked in whole of government changes in 2004 to overcome the threat of external events (Peter Ho, “The RAHS Story,” in Edna Tan Hong, Ngoh & Hoo Tiang Boon, ed. Thinking about the Future, Strategic anticipation and RAHS, Singapore: NSCC & RSIS, 2008, pp. xi – xix). Among these events figured the SARS epidemic (Ibid.).

We could multiply almost ad infinitum the examples of factors created by the COVID-19 epidemic at second and third level of analysis having varying impacts at first and second level, according to specific situations.

It is thus crucial to develop a proper framework considering collective changes that each actor will then be able to apply to its specific case.

No return to the past

We thus have seen examples of how changes at the second and third level of analysis may impact diversely specific actors. Now, if we want to be able to fathom these coming changes, then we must overcome a major hurdle. We must allow ourselves to think out of the box. We must overcome our cognitive straight-jackets. We must make sure we envision all possibilities. This starts with debunking the mental models that hold us prisoners.

The myth of the return to the past

One such currently pregnant mental model is to think the world will come back to the situation before the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Most people, commentators and official actors seem indeed to believe that, at worst, a couple of days, weeks or maybe months will be difficult. Then, everything is expected to come back to normal. Rapidly, and even more so once the peak of the epidemic is past, the aim is to resume “normal production and life” (Zhou Xin, “Coronavirus: Xi Jinping sends message on China’s economy and getting back to business“, 12 February 2020).

This is expressed through words such as “recovery”, “resumption”, “get back to normal”, “return to normal”, found in various statements and news articles’ titles (e.g. “The survey on business and economic recovery prospects… the resumption of business operations and production” in “Chinese businesses optimistic despite COVID-19 outbreak: survey” (Xinhua, 29 Feb 2020); “China wants to get back to normal as its coronavirus case numbers ease. That could be dangerous“, CNN, 28 Feb 2020; ‘A slower return to normal:’ Apple expects to miss revenue targets due to China’s coronavirus“, Fortune, 18 February 2020).

If “normal” means a situation where the COVID-19 epidemic does not spread, then this perception may be right.

However, if by “normal” various actors and commentators think that the world will come back to what it was before the epidemic started, then this is a wrong assumption.

Can we apply the model of the stages of an epidemic to the world caught in an epidemic?

The belief in a return to the past may result from a projection, on the world, of the way an epidemic unfolds.

The stages of an epidemic model

For example, France applies to the COVID-19 outbreak an approach by stages it developed for the 2011 influenza epidemic, as shown in the image below.

Plan national – Pandémie grippale – 2011 – p 11 – Now applied to COVID-19

There, each stage generates an objective and various actions (Info Coronavirus, questions fréquentes, “Quels sont les trois stades de gestion de l’épidémie de Coronavirus COVID-19 en France ?“, gouv.fr; Plan national – Pandémie grippale – 2011, pp. 10-11).

Is Stage 4 “return to the situation ante” truly possible?

Stage 4 corresponds, in terms of actions, to a return to the “anterior situation”. However, the actions are related to the management of the epidemic. Thus, if or when the epidemic stops then the exceptional measures taken to handle the epidemic similarly stop. As a result, one may come back to the situation ante. For example, there is no need to mobilise the same medical personal. Quarantines are not needed anymore.

Yet, even in the medical and epidemiological field, it is likely that there will be no return to the past, stricto sensu. Indeed, human beings learn from their experience – hopefully. It is thus highly likely that the health systems, nationally and globally, will change out of the COVID-19 lessons learned. Thus, there will be no return to the past.

An impossible return to the past: the SARS epidemic and lessons learned

Now, if we apply the strictly epidemiological phase model to something else, then the possibility of a phase 4 that would be a return to the situation ante is even less possible.

Let us use the case of the SARS as comparative example. With hindsight, we know that the SARS epidemic changed things for ever. For instance, as pointed out earlier, Singapore embarked on a whole of government horizon scanning and strategic foresight policy also because of the SARS epidemic (Peter Ho, Ibid.). While implementing the new policy, Singapore changed. Moreover, it also developed related international actions that impacted the world (Helene Lavoix, Actionable Foresight: The cases of Singapore and Finland, a United States Department of State Commissioned Report, 2010). As a result, the whole world changed, even if most actors did not realise it consciously or are not aware of it. And this is only one instance of change. It is however sufficient to evidence that the world after the SARS epidemic was not a coming back to the situation as it was before the SARS.

We may also identify other candidates explaining the belief that life will resume as previously. Hope is most probably a strong explanatory factor. Interest too certainly plays a part, as those who benefited from the pre-COVID-19 epidemic system will want this system to come back. Other cognitive biases may also be at work.

Nonetheless, despite hopes, projections and other biases, we shall never come back to the world we knew before the outbreak. In other words, everything will change.

Thus, the nature, depth, and scope of the possible changes must be envisioned. Henceforth, we must identify the key variables that influence the existence, magnitude, speed and probability of these changes. This is what we shall do for key generic factors with future articles. Those who will be best prepared will survive best.

Featured image: This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Published by Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the President/CEO of The Red Team Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for international relations, national and international security issues. Her current focus is on the war in Ukraine, international order and the rise of China, the overstepping of planetary boundaries and international relations, the methodology of SF&W, radicalisation as well as new tech and security.

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