Overline: Coronavirus
Headline: What the pandemic says about how we deal with systemic risks

Empty shelves in a supermarket in Berlin: By mid-March pasta had become a rarity across Germany.
Empty shelves in a supermarket in Berlin: By mid-March pasta had become a rarity across Germany. Shutterstock/Dante Busquets

The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has fundamentally changed our lives within a short period. The world is in a state of emergency and there is no end in sight. The pandemic triggered by the coronavirus is a dynamic event shaped by many different factors, in particular human behaviour (e.g. hygiene behaviour and social interactions), making it highly variable. In many countries, the number of infections is rising exponentially. In the absence of effective therapeutic drugs or a vaccine, the number of infections can only be reduced by adopting far-reaching measures to restrict direct social contact ("physical distancing"). 

The current situation reveals just our limited ability to contain the systemic risks posed by pandemics in an age of rapid global flows of people, goods and information. Pathogens spread rapidly thanks to the global networks of international passenger transport that we have established, with impacts that extend far beyond our health care systems. The current pandemic is affecting all of our society's vital systems: from the food supply to our economic and financial systems, and from education to culture and social life. Its impacts are not limited to a few local hotspots. This is truly a global crisis. 

Responses to the coronavirus vary from country to country

The spatial and sectoral reach of the pandemic, together with its dynamic development, make it difficult for countries to find the right way of dealing with this crisis. Around the world, government responses have varied considerably. In centrally-planned, socialist China, drastic measures to reduce social contact were swiftly introduced in an approach that is now paying off with a flattening of the infection curve. Great Britain and the Netherlands, on the other hand, initially reacted more cautiously but have since shut down public life to a large extent. Sweden has pursued a soft approach and is clinging to normality despite the crisis, with schools and day-care centres remaining open for the time being. 

On 22 March 2020, Germany tightened the guidelines previously adopted to limit social contact. Under Germany's federal system, responsibility for civil defence measures is devolved to the state level. The national guidelines have been interpreted differently by the various state governments. Bavaria was quick to issue a stay-at-home order. There, residents are only allowed to leave their homes in case of emergency. Other federal states, such as Brandenburg, (still) allow people to leave their homes to go to work, shop for groceries, seek medical treatment and to do sports or exercise in the fresh air. 

Health, work, transportation: Risks are transboundary and interconnected phenomena

All of the strategies adopted by countries have far-reaching consequences, the full extent of which will only become apparent over time. The economic impacts are already proving enormous. Around the world, governments have launched emergency relief programmes aimed at stabilizing economies and financial markets. Despite this, some are already calling for an easing of the restrictions on public life in order to mitigate the economic downturn. The risks of taking no or insufficient action to protect populations must be weighed against the risks that these interventions entail for all sectors of society, including energy, infrastructure, food security, transportation and traffic. 

But here, too, the risks are complex, interconnected and transboundary. The rapid and drastic countermeasures adopted in China ("the hammer") led to international bottlenecks in the supply of medicines. Together with India, China is the main producer of active pharmaceutical ingredients. The pharmaceutical industry embrace of lean manufacturing leaves only minimal buffers and makes the industry highly susceptible to materials shortfalls. The decision to close the German borders also has consequences – not only for Germany's relations with its European neighbours, but also for agriculture, which relies on seasonal migrant workers to sow and plant seedlings. No single country or person bears sole responsibility in this crisis.

Europe's open border regime is a thing of the past for now. Cross-border traffic between Germany and Switzerland – here, the border crossing at Rafz in the canton of Zurich – has been severely restricted since 17 March.
Europe's open border regime is a thing of the past for now. Cross-border traffic between Germany and Switzerland – here, the border crossing at Rafz in the canton of Zurich – has been severely restricted since 17 March. istock/Andreas Haas

Fear fuels national isolation and populism

The ethical dimension of the pandemic is evident, for example, in Italy, where a triage system has been introduced to manage the distribution of increasingly scarce human and material resources among the sick – with consequences not only for the affected persons and their relatives, but also for medical professionals. In Germany, too, the healthcare system could well be pushed to its limits. The extensive privatisation of healthcare has made the system more efficient, but also more vulnerable. The buffer capacities that we now need so desperately – both in terms of material and human resources – have been sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.

In times of fear and uncertainty many people turn inwards and tend to their own interests. This is reflected in a resurgence of populism and isolationism. People are also showing an unprecedented willingness to accept the restriction of personal freedoms. In this context, the proposed development of an app with the capacity to report the location of persons infected with SARS-CoV-2 to other users should give us pause for critical reflection. 

Stockpiling our way to a sense of security 

As individuals, we react to perceived uncertainty by trying to regain a degree of control. The widespread stockpiling of toilet paper, disinfectants, flour and pasta seen in recent weeks are symptomatic of this. This behaviour is triggered by a desire for control and autonomy. Unable to influence events on a large scale, the individual attempts to at least exercise control on a small scale. But the actions of each individual aggregate into a collective phenomenon that further strains supply systems. 

Toilet paper is ultimately a non-essential good. Hospitals, medical practices and nursing homes, on the other hand, are dependent on the reliable supply of disinfectants and protective equipment, especially high-quality respirator masks. The same goes for the current restrictions on social interactions. If people do not reduce social contact out of consideration for others (e.g. risk groups), the resulting delay in the easing of restrictions as the rate of infection continue to rise is likely to encourage greater compliance. Risk communication seeks to pass on relevant information and initiate the cognitive and social psychological processes that result in insight and the adoption of desirable behaviour. In her television address of 18 March 2020, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke plainly about the responsibility that rests on each and every one of us. She also emphasized that research is progressing and that preventive measures will be subject to constant review and adapted in the light of new findings.

The coronavirus has revealed the fragility of our society. We must learn from this experience. Despite all the negative aspects, some positive aspects of this pandemic should be noted here. For example, the pandemic has led to a short-term reduction in CO2 emissions, to improvements in air quality and, in general, to a (temporary) reduction in environmental pollution. The crisis has disrupted routines. When all this is over, it is important that we do not simply return to “business as usual”. 

Exit strategies call for transdisciplinary cooperation

Some initiatives, so far limited to clinical research on the coronavirus, have already been launched. For example, comprehensive testing for SARS-CoV-2 will support research as well as providing medical diagnoses. Clearly, this research should be coordinated at the national – and ideally international – level. Other lessons are more difficult to learn and virological, epidemiological, and therapeutic studies alone will not suffice. The governance of systemic risks, and of pandemics in particular, is a genuinely interdisciplinary undertaking. The current situation illustrates clearly the manifold systemic interactions of pandemics with other risks. Transdisciplinary approaches are needed if we are to weigh up the diverse risks that this situation presents – e.g. the question of whether preventive measures should be relaxed in order to mitigate a looming recession. This crisis presents opportunities – it's down to us to use them!

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