Contributions for leading an effective
Covid-19 Response Team

Ricardo Oliveira Neves
Consultant – Strategy, Marketing and Communications
Social Entrepreneur
Ashoka Fellow

in the middle of a perfect storm

31 March 2020

Don´t underestimate it! An effective kick off for a Covid-19 Response Team can make all the difference for your organization in the years ahead. Here is my personal contribution in facing this dramatic civilization challenge.

Right now, every adult must be prepared to seriously consider how to deal with the dramatic situation that is afflicting everyone in our planet. However, organizational leaders are challenged to bring together collaborators and stakeholders and start building a strategic response for their organization, which can lead it to the future or to the end of the line.

Generally, you can expect three kinds of behaviors from people when they are confronted with crises, uncertainty and tough decision-making needs. Allow me here to use a metaphor to better identify the three basic behaviors as the ostrich, the chicken, and the eagle.

Mindset styles when decision-making is the hardest

The ostrich when facing a situation, especially very serious crisis, gets paralyzed or it´s in denial. Ostrich people tend to reason that, as always happens, crises come and go, they have a start and fade away sooner or later. Stand still and things are going to be back to normal.

Then comes the chicken, well known for being a flighty bird, reactive, erratic and, yes, chickens can fly. However, it is indeed a very short flight compared with other birds.

The third behavior can be metaphorically identified as the eagle, a bird that flies higher, takes a wide view of the field in order to form an accurate decision-making process and then dives toward the aim, precise and swift.

Of course, everyone who is in a leadership role claims to identify themselves with the eagle. However, and unfortunately, I would say that most leaders behave themselves as the ostrich or the hen, mostly because people tend to firmly believe that everything in life ends up going back to normal.

“Beware of the ides of the March”, says the old saying. 13 March, Friday, 2020, for most of us in European Union, at least for me, was a dramatic date. Exactly on that Friday, most of the EU politicians and civic leaders started announcing that general and stringent lockdown policy was going to be imposed to the majority of (the) big cities in Europe as a reaction to Italy´s in coping with the Covid-19 pandemics.

This policy decision was firmly reasserted in the following week grounded in a highly authoritative scientific report published by a group of scientists gathered as the COVID-19 Response Team led by London Imperial College and published on March 16. Please click here to read the report.

This article is considered the most influential landmark for a shift of position in both the United States and the United Kingdom, for the decision making teams who advise Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, both politicians recognized as averse to scientific-based argumentation, who adopt a communication populist style, dealing with complex issues in a very simplistic way and without regard to the reality of the facts, a style that values much more versions of convenience and tags everything different as “fake news”.

That article highlighted three ways to face the COVID-19 pandemic grounded in rationality and scientific knowledge with an epidemiological basis considering what science knows so far about the Corona virus. In a nutshell, the team led by Imperial College cites three strategies: Doing Nothing, Mitigation and Suppression. The following illustrations help us to understand the three strategies more briefly.

Doing Nothing names the inaction scenario coming from the denial of the seriousness of the pandemic, which was exactly what some politicians, like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, were doing until mid-March. For the Doing Nothing scenario the Imperial College Response Team estimated something like 510,000 deaths in the UK and 2.2 million in the US to happen until September 2020. Please see the illustration below reproduced from that article.

Do Nothing Scenario

The shock resulting from this sinister Do Nothing scenario activated the red alert for the expert teams at The White House and at Downing Street. That immediately prompted a sense of urgency in the USA and UK recommending to follow the 2nd strategic alternative suggested by the Imperial College Response Team, namely Mitigation, which is the situation that we are facing in most countries, which prioritizes social distancing, isolation and quarantine. Mitigation is an attempt to freeze the mobility and proximity of individuals aiming to “flatten the curve” of the public demand for emergency medical services.

Mitigation as a strategy is highly dependent on the ability of governments to produce, above all, an induction in terms of changing social behavior, based on the capacity of the society as a whole to practice self-isolation in family and residential groups, and other measures such as, prohibition of mass events, sports and fairs, closing schools, shopping centers and non-essential companies. The following illustration, also a reproduction from the Covid-19 Response Team led by the London Imperial College, shows how the devastation of Doing Nothing can be reduced to varying degrees depending on the intensity of Mitigation actions. Of course, the collateral damage of the Mitigation is foremost the economy.

Mitigation scenarios

However, even in the best of Mitigation´s scenario, the numbers are still dramatic in terms of mortality. Mitigation can go as far as reducing the demand for emergency beds by two-thirds and reducing the number of deaths by half. In search for additional recommendations aiming to find a third path to deal with the pandemic, the Covid-19 Response Team experts suggested a strategic policy named as Suppression, a path inspired by the experiences of China and South Korea in dealing with Covid-19, countries that went further than Mitigation.

Suppression comprises Mitigation combined with additional multiple efforts ranging from mass testing to accurately track and detect how the virus spreads, massive clinical isolation and treatment, and massive operations on a macro and micro scale of decontamination and generalized asepsis of public areas, squares, buildings and means of transportation.

As a strategy, Mitigation represents the tactical withdraw aiming to gain some time in order to be better equipped and to acquire a more in-depth knowledge of the enemy. Suppression represents an offensive on all fronts, that is, the total war against the virus. Suppression requires large resources and complex orchestration. Just like in wartime, government commands society in monumental efforts, resources are invested without limitation, and there is virtually no fiscal policy restriction. Therefore, Suppression represents the abrupt decline in propagation, and in terms of graphic illustration it follows the flattening of the exponential of infection. These curves are well evident for those who analyze the evolution of the pandemic in China and South Korea.

On March 19, a second and relevant article became public(,) suggesting an additional strategic approach to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, this time it was not a scientific article but a civic contribution produced by a consultant and businessman from Silicon Valley, Tomas Pueyo, vice president of startup Course Hero, an online platform collaborative learning and study. (The article can be accessed by clicking here.)

Without being an article in the current format of traditional scientific newspapers, this text, which already circulates on the Internet with translation in 27 languages and generated an online petition forwarded to the White House, so far with more than five million signatures, is titled Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance — What the Next 18 Months Can Look Like, if Leaders Buy Us Time.

The illustration that appears right at the beginning of the aforementioned second article, here below reproduced, summarizes in an extraordinary and in a simplified way, what can be considered a robust and consistent strategic vision for tackling covid-19 challenge, built through extremely well-grounded argument in scientific terms and that was developed within the best tradition of heuristic thinking.

Do Nothing, Mitigation and The Hammer and The Dance Scenarios

In the new heuristic narrative proposed by Pueyo to the tactical withdraw, represented by Mitigation, Suppression follows immediately and as a full force offensive action. Then Pueyo rebranded it as the Hammer.

The success of the Hammer strategy repetitively and accurately applied, Pueyo points out with great persuasion, will achieve greater impact as time passes by the arrival of new tactical and strategic weapons and from learning and gaining further empirical knowledge in various fronts, i.e., epidemiology, immunology, virology, clinic and pharmacologic treatments, social behavior, new technologies for asepsis, etc. We cannot underestimate the number of world-class scientists, transnational companies, investors and governments immersed in this search for vaccine, treatments and an accelerated advancement of knowledge, the best brains in the world able to achieve in weeks what normally would take years.

However, the Hammer is not the final strategic step. In fact, in the months, perhaps, years ahead, we will carry on facing a global situation, which will represent a sort of Damocles´ sword above our heads. Suddenly, out of the blue, a resurgence of coronavirus may take place. Then, following the Hammer step we will have to exercise epidemiological surveillance actions in a paranoid way. This epidemiological ongoing vigilance, which will take place after the Hammer, is named by Puyeo, the Dance.

The Dance will be a condition which will represent the moments over the next few years when public authorities will be monitoring a variable called R, which statistically represents the spread of the Corona virus. In making a long story short we can simplify by saying, in the same way that we monitor macroeconomics indicators, like currencies exchange rate, GDP, inflation, unemployment, etc., from now on we will keep an eye on R. When R is below “1”, it is ok. However, if R is above “1”, which means that the Corona virus is again spreading faster and out of control in a given region, we will declare that region a new front, the theater of war, where we have to resume the Hammer.

As you can see, if we view things in this way, we can be more confident in terms of getting back the control of the situation. That is the positive and strategic way that leaders, politicians, economists and all those decision makers are urged to understand until a scientific breakthrough happens, for instance, an effective vaccine which can be safely used in global scale, instant and cheap testing kits, etc. This scenario is a matter of time and will happen. Then, together perhaps in a couple of years, as a global community, will put definitively behind of us the global covid-19 crisis.

Therefore, it is not a time of despair or hopelessness. We have the means and ways to deal with this challenge on a planetary scale. Furthermore, in this learning process we can acquire lessons about innovative global collaborative approaches that can help us in other urgent strategic issues, e.g., climate change and the transformation of the linear economy into a circular economy.

If you are in a leadership role I am sure that as an eagle you are bringing together your team and will help them to calm down and will facilitate a collaborative decision-making process aiming to choose the best ways to handle a crisis that will not easily fade away. However, there are no quick fix and shortcuts.

My key advice as a seasoned strategy consultant in facing this dramatic global challenge is that your collaborators and stakeholders are the most valuable asset. However, your Covid-19 Response Team is your best asset for winning the pandemic and the economic depression in the months ahead. A well thought and effective Covid-19 kick off meeting can make all the difference. Work hard on that.

For sure together we can get this job done. We can, and we will win! However, we must get start it with a confident and strategic understanding of the challenges ahead. Keep in mind that, ultimately, leaders are the guardians of the grand vision of any kind of human achievement. Now it is our responsibility to inspire our team to act up like the eagles.

Sensemaking with peers and stakeholders the ultimate meaning of the choices ahead for your organization