“Higher – Lower” and Covid-19

Author: Manu Steens

In this article I will tell you my own opinion. It is by no means the intention to present dealing with the pandemic as a simple matter. But there are some simple principles that strike me.

In the past, “higher-lower” was a game on television. Never before had I thought that these two words could be so important in assessing the need for action in a pandemic.

Currently, the federal government makes use of the services of specialists: virologists, biostatisticians , epidemiologists, etc. They can be used at any time to draw up difficult mathematical models to estimate the pandemic and to distil difficult indicators of the evolution from them.

How could it have been assumed with higher-lower at the beginning of September how it would evolve at the end of September and the weeks after ? (The next few months remain to be seen, but our experience with the first wave tells us that this wave is not over yet, and it is going to be difficult.)

Using three qualitative, easy to understand indicators as follows:

  1. What was the situation with the number of infections in Belgium at the beginning of September with regard to the number of infections at the very beginning of the first wave? Higher! Much higher ! And what about the number of super spreaders? Also much higher in September.
  2. What was the spread of the disease in the country with regard to the early onset of the first wave in early 2020? Also much higher.
  3. How did people behave in relieving the measures in terms of elation and carelessness? – higher ! And that is normal. If you doubt that, you should see a bunch of cows roaming about after a long winter, and then released into the pasture. People who have been a long time in lock-down have the same desire to be free again. And that behavior became part of the new normal. Goodbye caution. Goodbye discipline.

Is the result surprising, then, that there will be a more severe wave after September, which can whip higher than the first wave?

And that’s not even the question I want to talk about. What I want to talk about are lessons for the near future.

Is it inconceivable that there will be another wave after this? And what should we do about it?

We will not be able to do much about the first two indicators. As for the first, we are not even going to know if all the sick have been healed, and that no one is a carrier anymore. As for the second, mutatis mutandis: we cannot say much about the spread if we are not 100% sure who is still a carrier and who is not.

That is why it is important to do something with the third indicator. This is currently done by reducing the transmissibility of the virus as much as possible. In this way they try to prevent the spread in order not to overload the hospital system, if possible until there is a vaccine, and preferably forever.

But that requires discipline, both during the approach to reverse the new wave and the period afterwards to prevent another wave. So the discipline must be higher ! And that regardless of the precise measures in a ministerial order, or in the protocols, or in the local measures.

The search for exceptions, loopholes, back doors,… to do their thing must therefore be lower !

Opportunity statements and identification and COVID-19

Author: Manu Steens

Anyone who takes himself seriously concerning risk management knows that the definition of risk according to ISO roughly amounts to a cause that gives rise to an uncertainty in the achievement of objectives. That uncertainty can have a de facto positive effect, so that the objectives are achieved and more, or have a negative effect, namely that the objectives are not achieved or worse.

A risk can then be written as a risk statement, which consists of a cause, the actual risk and the ultimate effect. This suffices as a one-to-one cause-to-effect statement to follow our reasoning, although real risk statements can give rise to many-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many statements.

Having a negative effect is due to threats, having a positive effect is due to opportunities.

Since a risk, despite the ISO definition, is linked by most people to threats rather than opportunities, we need to use metalanguage to focus.

Metalanguage in these are ‘templates’ in which risk statements, including opportunity statements, can be included.

This one is based on the principle of a risk statement:

  • “As a result of , may occur, which may lead to .”

And for opportunities based on SWOT, this becomes:

If we apply this to the European situation regarding Covid-19, we get, for example, statements like:

  • Through a policy culture that allows for a firm response, we can limit a new flare-up of the virus, which gives the development of a suitable virus vaccine more time and thus more chance of success.
  • If we can limit the number of human contacts at work, on public transport and in public spaces and to the extent of the realistically possible also in private life and at all kinds of events, we may be able to reduce the virus sufficiently, which gives a chance to the world of making work of economic recovery.
  • If the global expansion of human activities is intelligently restrained , allowing the pandemic risk in the future to diminish, biodiversity can stabilize, the natural balance can restore, fewer people come into contact with wild animals that are no longer dislodged from their habitat so that new pathogens are no longer transferred, transmission can decrease internationally, citizens in the future will be more forgiving and tolerant of a mistake in policy.
  • If clear communication is used, the right experts are heard, and transparency is created about the relationship between cause and effect, the most decisive policies can be discussed in open forums, providing insight into necessary and perhaps sufficient reforms to support a sustainable recovery.
  • With this premise, there may possibly be brought forward new and better institutions, with improved basic infrastructure, better regulation of key economic sectors and investment in public services that create and protect human capital and render in the long term, not in the short term, which can shape the economy and the world of the future. For example, by opting for a low-carbon basic infrastructure as a result of an open debate without group-think or tunnel vision , which enables growth for new developments, but which can also provide an answer to climate challenges.
  • By organizing flexible technology in Europe, and building strategic stocks of raw materials, it is possible to switch quickly between conventional production and the production of necessary goods in a pandemic time (e.g. personal protective equipment), thus reducing Europe’s dependence on Asia, and which also makes it possible to test such a system in collaboration with regular customers (eg hospitals, rest homes,…).

The need for civic engagement and clarity at Covid-19

Author: Manu Steens

Two articles on the website of the VRT appealed to me. They block the seriousness of the situation:

– Microbiologist Herman Goossens: “Insufficient Security Council measures, we are heading for disaster if we don’t act quickly”.

– Antwerp governor pleads: “Please limit your social contact to your family or choose two regular friends”.

The governor also said in the interview, “Be tougher on yourself than what’s allowed.”

This is not simple: it requires engagement and participation from the people.

Then, of course, the question arises: “What is engagement?”. And what are decisive factors at the government that demands engagement from the citizen?

According to John C. Besley (in Chapter22: ‘Public Engagement in Risk-Related Decision Making’ in ‘The SAGE Handbook of Risk Communication’), the fact that public engagement can involve a huge variety of activities is a stumbling block to transform available information into knowledge.

According to Creighton, public engagement is “the process by which public concerns, needs and values are incorporated into governmental and corporate decision making. It is two-way communication and interaction, with the overall goal of better decisions that are supported by the public”.

There may also be mechanisms whereby citizens have some degree of control over decisions. This then is a continuum that goes from agreeing with what the government wants up to becoming citizens who have a meaningful voice, and are recognized for this by the government.

An important parameter, according to the literature, to get participation is the confidence citizens have in the decision makers, as well as the more they know about the situation in which they have to participate. For the latter, a pervasive communication with press conferences and much more than that is a permanent necessity.

In our country at the moment, it seems that it is mainly the citizens agreement with what is decided that takes place. There are very few citizens initiatives. This seems to indicate that the citizens look to the government with the question “tell us”. But also with the question “save us, because we do not know the solution ourselves”. Decisions can therefore be tough, and as long as they are made authentically and offer the solution in the long term (if necessary), the citizen will continue to agree.

The solutions must also be clear.

This implementation of measures always requires clarity. How do you do this? Goal: defeat the virus. Operational measures are therefore necessary. How do you clearly describe the goals and actions operationally and why do you want to do that? In his book “Your Best Year Ever” Hyatt writes about a well-known method: SMARTER. How can we apply that to the actions we want to roll out?

SMARTER stands for Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Risky, Time-keyed, Exciting, Relevant.

The idea is that we first have to write down the goals. In this crisis, there is only one goal. To defeat the disease. But that in itself is not SMARTER.

This could be a proposal:

Specific: get the number of infections to zero to prevent a third wave. We do this by complying with the six golden measures and limiting our social contacts to our own family and otherwise to a maximum of two friends a week. The intention is to get the R-value back below “1”. However, all this is not specific enough. Therefore, to make things operational and specific, there are the MB and the FAQ. Unfortunately, in the past it has already been shown that these will always be incomplete, because one cannot summarize the lives of 11 million people on about 40 pages of paper. But the rules are there, both in the letter and in the spirit, and people are asked to take their own responsibility with common sense when their situation is not literally described.

Measurable: through testing and contact tracing, no new infections are detected. This is a criterion that clearly states when the downward tail of the new infections reaches zero. This is only possible if indeed we get the R-value under “1”. This is also measurable, through the numbers of for example hospitals that are passed on to the government. But measurable also means that the police must be able to check compliance. Such as leaving your details when visiting a cafe or restaurant. An example of what is very measurable here is a name tag.

Actionable: I translate this here as feasible and useful: it’s about what we do. Here the FAQs are useful again. The six golden rules are not difficult to follow. But the question was asked whether it would not be better to limit ourselves to much smaller bubbles. That in itself is not actionable: it is not useful, for example, to measure your social contacts. Better is “Find a maximum of 2 friends per week instead of 15”. This is useful because it is based on a useful verb: search. Not more generic, often unclear statements with verbs like “are” or “have”. So choice of verb is very important in communication.

Risky. Ugh. Normally it says something like “Reasonable”. But using the word Reasonable makes that we often do not challenge ourselves enough to set the bar at a high enough level. Reasonableness encourages you to make it easy with quickly achievable objectives. A bubble with 15 friends is easily achievable. It seems reasonable. But it’s not. It’s certainly not a challenge, but more than that, it’s a number where people stop counting. 15 seems infinite, so we’ll do whatever. And before you know it, you’ve got a lot more contacts than 15 and the infections are rising. Meeting just two good friends is much more challenging. You have to make choices, decide who you prefer and why. It’s more confrontational, the bar is much higher to realize it.

Time-keyed: the measure of the bubble is the clearest example here. Two friends, who are allowed to change per week. But it doesn’t always have to be time intervals. They can also be frequencies. This concept also divides the goals into “achievement goals” and “habit goals”. An example of an achievement goal is that you buy name tags to leave behind in a café that you visited to be available for testing and tracing. An example of a habit goal is that you always put on a mask when travelling by train. The goals should become a habit as much as possible. Then for many people it goes by itself.

Exciting: “What in God’s name is exciting about such goals and measures?” Actually, internal motivation is meant here. It is an important characteristic that people are intrinsically motivated to make them achieve their goals. Good health is an example of this. I assume that everyone loves themselves enough to find their own health important enough to be motivated. So contrary to what the word suggests, it is the feeling of concern that is important here. Worrying about your neighbor and yourself. Let that concern inspire you to take good care of yourself, your family, and your friends and neighbors.

Relevant: this is here with regard to the crisis situation (including other people) and also your personal health interests. This criteria is the bottom line. Effective goals and measures are relevant. It has everything to do with giving direction. This gives you the opportunity to check your gut feeling before committing to the measures. It is here that everything can go wrong if we are not careful. There are four criteria for measures you can check here: is the measure proportional, prudent, efficient, and effective? Note: what is “proportional” doesn’t necessarily have to be easy, it’s more in the sense of “necessary”. This criterion of relevance gives the necessary pressure in a crisis like this: the pressure can be social, financial, professional, … whatever. This helps to explain why challenging a crisis like this is no easy task. It is therefore essential not to oppose each other. Be stricter on yourself than what is asked for.

More information:

Covid 19 – Discourse for innovation and lessons learned

Author: Manu Steens

Roughly the last 5 months our country has been under the spell of Covid 19. All kinds of things happened, and as in every war (but now against an invisible enemy) we get to know people from their most beautiful and ugliest sides.

To curb the pandemic in our country, measures were taken during the first wave of the disease. But the virus spreads quickly and smoothly over the results we have achieved. Today we can roughly say that we are at the beginning of the second wave, sooner than we originally thought it would occur. Has it been for nothing then? Or can we learn what we need to do from the past?

The first lesson we identify is that the lock down had an effect. But was the way this happened optimal? Are other formulas possible? And should we pretend to start from the same initial situation during the second wave, or is the experience of the population important if the given signal is strong and clear enough?

A second lesson we can see is that there is likely to be a shift in the target audience of the disease. It is no longer especially the elderly in the retirement homes that are the target of the virus, but more and more the younger people. A question that arises here is whether this is because of the so-called super spreaders , and possibly because of edge workers , of which I spoke in the previous blog. The population would then be split into two groups: the common man and the risk-seekers. The common man will let his actions be guided by the measures taken by the government, not so the risk-seeking edge workers . Punishment does nothing to them. Perhaps one can teach them how to do the things they want to do safely rather than make them renounce it, for example through punishment . Because the latter does not work. But then the question arises: how can we teach them to do it safely, because (for example) safe partying is actually a very useful concept for the whole of society. For example: do events need to be adjusted, or is a new concept of events needed? Like the virtual neighborhood party was one.

So we can still identify some lessons. The question is whether we should identify the lessons through a “wild brainstorming” and “ implement quick actions ” or whether we can use an existing framework to make the necessary change (from the lessons identified ) work.

Such a framework exists (Timothy L. Sellnow , The SAGE handbook of risk communication , Chapter 20: ‘ Crisis communication ‘ and references therein ) . To maintain a discourse with an impact on innovation and improvement, an organization must want to learn from each crisis (the lessons identified ), reflect on ethical responsibility and liability, develop a forward-looking vision, and present that vision rhetorically. This may also apply to society in the current crisis.

A society that engages for renewal will then want to change and improve as a result of the crisis. After all, the lessons identified only make sense of the crisis if we turn it into lessons learned . Only when these lessons become part of society do they penetrate their culture and change the way decisions are made. But if the memory of the society regarding these lessons fades over time, eg. because euphoria after the first (small) victory , then this society is again vulnerable to the same crisis.

We saw the latter after the measures were lifted: many people seemed to think that the crisis was over, and the lessons learned quickly “faded”. Result: the R-value quickly rose back to around value 1, according to one source its calculation method just below (0.98) , according to another just above (1.1).

That is why reflecting on ethical responsibility is paramount: a thorough handling of innovation has a strong value orientation . Ethical violations can be things like stinginess, hubris , injustice, context-sensitive rudeness (such as shouting at someone that causes aerosols to spread widely) that are more likely to contribute to a crisis. A society which has a values-structure that is not centered around any of its citizens , has it harder to get into a new normal. It is as if citizens feel as if something is not right, they are tired of it more quickly , which is why some of them will be opposed to it all. To permanently motivate them, purity of spirit and authenticity in the positioning by the policymakers is important. It provides self-protection for the leaders. So making concessions through social or other pressure is not always a good idea. There is a real chance that this will return to the decision-makers like a boomerang afterwards .

A foreseeing vision is important to avoid this boomerang: in the aftermath of the crisis, people are quickly tempted into a “blame, shame and denial game”. That never leads to a solution, it is only a waste of energy, time and resources and it only leads to a deviation from the goal. A foreseeing vision is needed to shift the focus to building a more resilient society that can deliver again its mission with respect to itself, as well as any citizen facing any other citizen. Good communication is central to frame this vision. After all, the fact is that there is no real script in a crisis. Plenty of plans exist, but any pre-made plan is worthless. Over and over again, one has to discover how the crisis at hand ‘works’. Moreover, “The devil is in the details” is true time and again. That is why there should be no one to throw the first stone. After all, casting the first stone does not make a positive contribution to the development of an ethical responsibility. But working out a vision well can help you parry those stones.

This vision must be presented rhetorically: commitment and vision can take the form needed to put the society back on track. After all, the rhetorical activities create a reality of their own for the citizens , to inspire them to remain loyal to themselves and each other during the crisis, and to rebuild society better than it was before. The message must be about all the previous things: the lessons learned, the value structure and the hope for the future.

If society effectively learns of the crisis in the aftercare phase, it can have a ” fresh sense of purpose and direction ” experience. This will enable it to evolve into a new-normal situation after the crisis. The pre-crisis phase thus separates the crisis recovery and – aftercare phase from a new start with the regular risk management (whose strategies are also subject to change themselves). Policymakers must then enter into dialogue with citizens about risks and risk tolerance. This dialogue then makes them respond to change. It means that everyone in the organization is focusing on the new future again. To this end one should also speak with almost everyone . Because without internal communication , people are blind and there is a greater chance of new crises.

But this ‘change effect’ also indirectly provides a criterion for calling the end of the crisis: the crisis is over when the (necessary) change happened, and everyone there finds her place, and picks up the thread again. Note that this does not mean that the wounds are no longer there or have already fully recovered.

Teleworking where it can

Author: Manu Steens

In the press conference of 3 June (https://www.info-coronavirus.be/en/news/nsc-0306/), measures for the reduction of the lock-down were given by the NSC (National Security Council) under the direction of Prime Minister Wilmès. A measure in which there is reasonable resentment among some employers is: “Working from home is recommended where possible”.

After all, many employers want their employees to go back to work in a 100% profitable way. This is understandable and desirable, since the economy is currently very damaged by the situation. However, does this also require a 100% presence on the work floor?

The NSC’s statement is nuanced in two ways: it says “Working from home is recommended” and “where possible”. In other words, this can be interpreted as follows: “dear employers, we advise you to continue to allow telework where possible, of course you may return to work where that is not possible, decide for yourself but please use your common sense”. And it’s this common sense that’s so desperately needed right now. Because what does it mean when you, like so many other employers, take a short cut and decide “that everyone goes back to work”? Arguments are given going from “the employees want social contact with their colleagues” to the other extreme “I want to be able to ask everyone questions when I have them” or “it doesn’t work 100% profitably now”.

Above all, such a reaction as an employer is unsubtle. It is absolute. It does not take into account the people who are afraid of being infected during (public or organised) transport. Such an action is tantamount to asking employees to leave their brains at home in the morning when they leave for work and only use them at home in the evening. As an employer, you pay emotional interest on this. Emotions cannot be switched off. And going against emotions is very demotivating. It is therefore better for the organisation to allow a limited presence on the work floor. The question then is, how can you best do that? Do you have to assign everyone a day? Or two days? Etc. And then work from home for the rest of the week where possible?

Looks like this is best pretty loosely organized. People should come to work when they need to. They know best when needed: they are experts in their job and know when they need certain things from the shop floor. Also when a face-to-face meeting with colleagues is important. So the principle can be better “you are welcome at the work environment, if you consider it necessary according to your personal needs” than by order of a higher hand. Because in the latter way, it just becomes more difficult to make good and even effective arrangements and to work together. In this way, the principle of “come to work one day a week”, for example, can be flexibly implemented in consultation with their colleagues. That is why the advice is: limit the number of places on the work floor and in the meeting rooms, and have everyone reserve a place if they feel the need to work away from home that day. Moreover, important conclusions can be drawn afterwards from the numbers that emerge from this in combination with the performance numbers. E.g. how much office space do you really need, and what are the real needs to work 100% profitably. From this you can then make suggestions for improvements.

Of course, this does not apply to production halls where, for example, cars are assembled and where you need the work force. That’s why “where possible”.