In response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is sweeping across the globe, we have made alternative arrangements for our upcoming classes.

But in this update, I’ll share my perspective on the global outbreak.

The Small Threat

There is an urgent need to slow the spread of COVID-19. In the last few days, health officials and governments started implementing quarantines (voluntary and mandatory), restricting travel, and nations are preparing for a massive economic slowdown.

According to the Lancet, the average mortality rate of COVID-19 averages around 1.5 to 3.6% depending on the source. Other sources show an increased risk for people aged 60 or more. Those in their 80s are at very high risk, as are those with chronic conditions.

The Big Threat We Must Avoid

What you may not know is that Joshua (our personality expert and training coordinator) has been coming to work late and exhausted for the last few months.

Why? He’s been volunteering his time as a crisis counsellor, providing support to front-line health workers fighting COVID-19 in Wuhan, China.

Joshua has first-hand knowledge of how the pandemic rolled out in China, from the initial outbreak to present–where it was just contained.

Based on Joshua’s experience from the ground, and my experience in global government, here’s my understanding of the facts, and what I expect will happen:

First, COVID-19 is spreading fast. People with COVID-19 show no symptoms for 2-weeks on average, while still being contagious. According to Chinese sources, the longest time for someone being infectious–with no symptoms and negative test results–was 38 days.

From a behavioral perspective, it’s reasonable to expect that most of us who get COVID-19 will unintentionally pass it to others.  And to be brutal, this means we’re all at risk of accidentally killing innocent people, for something as simple as socializing at the wrong time.

Second, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is low for most people. However, those at higher risk need about 2-weeks of medical care to survive. Without this care, their chances of surviving are low.

Third, one massive challenge with COVID-19 is its dissemination speed. Unless nations can slow it down, the health capacity of every nation will become overrun.

Why is this a problem? When health systems become overloaded, health providers are forced to adopt a triage strategy. Triage is the set of rules that health workers use to decide who to treat first.

When medical staff have limited capacity, they’ll start triaging (prioritizing) patients with the best chances of success, or the best hopes for a future life. Basically, triage policies dictate the order of treatment, which shapes who lives and who dies in a crisis.

Fourth, medical attention will get most people through a life-threatening infection. The problem is that if the disease spreads too fast, the small percentage of vulnerable people will become an avalanche of people who are desperate for medical attention that cannot be provided fast enough.

The biggest risk is being infected when the healthcare system is operating beyond capacity. This has already happened in China, where the Government didn’t take the virus seriously until people were passing out on the streets, and they had a full-blown health crisis. Italy’s healthcare system was also overloaded beyond capacity.

It can happen elsewhere too. US health officials have been warning that they’re not ready, so if aggressive measures are not implemented now, we may witness this in the USA too.

As I see it, the big crisis is more about medical capacity, given the rate of infection. If it spreads too fast, people will pass away while waiting for health support that is not available.

Getting Back To Normal?

There’s no vaccine yet. So the only response is to slow the spread.

By slowing the spread, hospitals will be able to cope with the influx, and build their capacity.

If slowed to the point where the healthcare system can manage the outbreak, then we will be back in business. It will probably be in stages, such as students going back to school, people coming in to work, restaurants opening, etc…

We can learn from China when predicting how our part of the world, in North America, will get back to normal.

China had a surreal response to COVID-19. It started with the denial of reality. But once it accepted its situation, it shifted to a totalitarian quarantine, which worked in the end.

They contained the outbreak, but only with a ruthless lockdown that few free democracies will accept. It was about 3-month from the start, to the current point, where they are getting back to normal in stages.

In other parts of the world, news reports are floating around of citizens who responded to the time off school/work, by hitting the beach, park, or socializing in public.

As behavioral scientists who spent much of my career in government, I advocate nudges and carrots whenever possible. But sometimes, we need a dose of “stick”, to ensure that all audiences take our nudges seriously. Though it’s not talked about much, when you design behavioral programs for governments, there’s often an implicit stick that lay behind the intervention. Think of “click it or ticket”.

A few nations have brought out the military. Not to control looting (which is happening in some parts), but to enforce travel restrictions, and to basically tell belligerent citizens to “get the hell home”.

I understand that in China if citizens learned about people going out in public with COVID-19, that person would receive an extremely hostile response from their fellow citizens. So it’s not just the military, but all of society that was wielding the stick.

The point is that China had a massive outbreak and contained it–except for, of course, the outbreak that is now inflicting havoc on the rest of the planet. But nonetheless, they eventually contained it within their borders.

What most people don’t know, is that China stopped COVID-19 by using a level of lockdown that is pretty much what you would expect from a brutal police-state. Their streets were empty; they kept people at home, and it worked.

I’m not sure if free democracies in North American can act as brutally as the Chinese, but if the virus is not contained, we may soon need to start ratcheting-up the restrictions.

But if we are able to contain it, and flatten the growth trajectory, then “getting back to normal”, will mean a staged relaxation of protective measures.

In other words, people will go back to work, restaurants will open, and citizens may feel confident enough to stop hoarding toilet paper.

But retirement homes may need to stay in lockdown, vulnerable groups will require protection, and people will probably be virophobic for some time.  Full relation of precautions may take months.

Avoiding Misinformation

During the pandemic, misinformation is likely to spread faster than COVID-19, so I’d vet all health claims by cross-referencing against credible sources. Some safe sources include the World Health Organization (WHO) (https://www.who.int), CDC (https://www.cdc.gov), Health Canada (https://www.canada.ca), or check your country’s health agency.

For global stats, see this global map from the United Nations.

In general, I don’t trust most of the stats I hear from journalists, so I normally cross-reference figures I heard from the media. Government sources are slower to report figures, and their numbers tend to be more conservative, but they’re the most reliable. So you basically get to chose between fast and unreliable, versus slow and reliable.

How We’re Responding

Given this development, America’s experience adapting to the COVID-19 has just begun. While the full scope of the effects remains to be seen, one thing is certain. More people will be spending time at home, which can be either a good or bad thing.

At AlterSpark we’ve adapted to the crisis by canceling all our in-person classes and focusing on e-learning. We figure our students who are stuck at home can make the most of the situation, by extending their education.

We’ve had to change our business to adapt. We’re putting all our services online, and shifting how we do business over the next few months.

From corporate training to individual certification, there are plenty of ways to add a touch of productivity to this crisis!

My company is now shifting all our efforts to online training. I’m thankful that we spent 2-years putting our entire training system online.

To learn about our response, see our COVID-19 training update.

Stay safe and make the most of your downtime, while this passes.

Brian