Managing Attention and Learning From a Pandemic

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Herbert Simon once stated that is the scarcest of economic resources. Recent events would seem to prove him right. The world has been held captive to Covid-19, the coronavirus pandemic. It affects everyone. Moreover, it is impossible to escape the sheer weight of information about the virus in the media and everyday life. Its implications are huge – and not only on the medical front but in terms of economic and social life too. From our behavior, a visitor from another planet would be justified in thinking that the coronavirus is the only issue facing humans on Earth. It captures almost all of our .

What went wrong? Why are we in this situation?

A major reason is the way we learn from experience. Humans tend to act by assuming that “things” will work well until they don’t, and remedial action is taken only then (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). For example, understanding the limits on the loads bridges can safely bear has its origins in learning from experience. People generally trusted that a bridge was safe to bear large weights until they learned one day, by accident, that there was a limit.

Unfortunately, we cannot necessarily learn from experience how to handle Covid-19. It’s not like a bridge that has fallen. Although mankind does have experience in handling similar viruses, there is just too much about Covid-19 that is misleading and unknown. Consider the immediate lessons of Covid-19. First, we (the international community) did not recognize its significance from the earliest stages (out of sight was out of mind). Second, we did not appreciate how the virus could spread but only inferred this once the process was under way. And the costs turned out to be too high for us to afford in the long run. It’s now clear that this pandemic had to be prevented. But had it been prevented, we would likely have underestimated its importance and impact.

This should bring to mind a relevant question: What other problems we face are like Covid-19?

Covid-19 does not replace our other problems. It’s an added one, which will end up exacerbating some of the existing ones. Unfortunately, the world faces many other challenges that won’t go away while we deal with Covid-19. Consider, for example, the effects of global warming, the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and other possible epidemics as well as the ravages of poverty and the plight of refugees. Hence, a hidden danger of Covid-19 is that it is absorbing all of our attention. We don’t have time to think about other problems and potential catastrophes. But we still need to face up to the possibility that some of these will occur in the near future.

Accordingly, the world needs to actively devote resources to imagining how events like the Covid-19 pandemic occur and to keep doing this over time in a way such that when a potential disaster occurs we have in place reasoned ideas about what to do – a stock of ideas and potential solutions. Merely waiting for disasters to occur and then acting is not sufficient. Governments and international non-governmental organizations need to organize continuous work on disaster management over a wide range of issues such that, when a disaster occurs, officials can consult the results of scenario planning exercises and similar studies to guide their actions. We need to invest in imagining how to handle crises before they occur and not just react to them once they have occurred. Even if – as is probable – we don’t and cannot guess exactly how the disasters will play out, we will at least have some ideas on how to approach the problems.

The world faces many issues. When we allow any one problem to hijack all of our attention, we will inevitably also suffer from the bad outcomes of others. Attention is indeed the scarcest of resources. However, by investing in systematically imagining and simulating the outcomes of disasters in the days where there are none, we can do a better job of managing our attention when they inevitably strike.

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