Coronavirus: A Pandemic Pointing Leaders to Borderless Systems Thinking

Published on 24th March 2020

A Disruptive, Distractive, Destructive and Distancing Pandemic

There is no denying that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has disrupted not only the health fabric of countries but also the economic, environmental and socio-cultural systems. Social distancing has become a sensible policy. Politicians have been distracted from the self-seeking topics that have been synonymous with their fiery exchanges. A micro-organism has instead been ruling the daily headlines with a borderless impunity defying established prejudices. The virus has been a one-stop-shop dispensing the dreaded disruption of even the most stable conventional systems ever known. Transport, education, health, popular political discourse, social interactions, work and play, cultural norms, traditional financial systems — all are facing a lockdown or a paradigm shift, whether temporal, simultaneous, or sequential.

Just two weeks into March 2020, not much was known yet about how fast COVID-19 would spread around the world. Africa was by then still considered safe by the majority including the politicians who sustained their normal campaign mode with an unwavering focus on the next election. Towards the end of March, confirmed cases of coronavirus have skyrocketed in just two weeks. Kenya’s confirmed cases have increased from one to fifteen, not sparing top political leaders. Uganda has confirmed her first case. Globally, the end of March 2020 is staring at the chilling reality of recording more than 350 000 cases of COVID-19 and 15 000 ensuing deaths.

As Bill Gates put it in 2015, microbes and the epidemics they cause are a more lethal and systemic threat to human survival than the dreaded weapons of mass destruction. COVID-19 has challenged the usual ambivalence of many decision makers to the digital transformation wave in a world experiencing a north-south digital divide as schools and public and private institutions encourage online platforms for learning, work, and e-commerce. With hindsight, considering that the world has experienced serious pandemics before such as the Black Death and influenza, what insights should any thought leader gain into these developments? What foresight should emerge from such indulgence of curiosity to the benefit of sound leadership and a prosperous society? Systems thinking gains currency in this scenario, summoning a rethink, reinvention and reengineering of leadership and decision making in a hyperconnected global village.

Redefining the Decade’s Critical Creed and Credo

The year 2020 started on a high note for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the start to the supposedly eventful Decade of Delivery. Many countries such as Kenya have 2030-bound visions, hence finding themselves facing similar decades of delivery. We must, however, not be distracted from the interconnected key issues around the degradation of the critical ecosystems that constitute our natural safety net. A glance at the recent environmental disasters such as locust invasion and the rapid degradation of critical transboundary resources such as Lake Victoria tells the story of systemic failures in collective responsibility and thought leadership. The moment of reckoning forced on leaders by the attention-grapping COVID-19 exposes the reality that it is noble and novel for nations to embrace systems thinking by focusing on a universal creed of sustainable progress and scientific credo informed by the analogies of a healthy body. To achieve the desired systems change, the creed for national transformation should be entrenched in the pillars of truth, understanding, education, and wisdom.

Truth liberates with its power of progressive exposure of novel ground through a relentless commitment to exploration. As such, supporting education and research is a key requirement for gaining the understanding needed to appreciate the value of truth in exploring ways of preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus and finding its cure. Wisdom in judgement and policy innovation requires a thorough knowledge of the big picture, sound evidence, and conscious cultural changes. In fighting global disasters in an era defined by unprecedented advances in knowledge, data and technology, we need to embrace scientific credo with lessons from a healthy body’s heavy reliance on the brain, the blood, and the nervous system:

  • The brain speaks to the critical human capital nations in Africa must invest in to boost transformational research and development.
  • The blood represents the data and information systems needed for sound decision support, big data in essence.
  • The nervous system in this sense is essentially a digital nervous system, hence the Internet and technology infrastructure needed for the digital economy, remote working, and virtual collaboration.

Redefining Independence from a Systems-Thinking Perspective

Independence is an illusion since all nations are interconnected and interdependent. Systems thinking is about seeing the big picture, the whole, and understanding that nature balances through feedbacks inherent in interrelationships and interdependent interactions. To a systems thinker, borders are not zones of separation as linear thinking assumes, but are rather meeting points of organic interactions and interdependence. Have you been told that the world owes you nothing? A wrong way of communicating scientific facts! I’d emphasise that the world as a system owes you something and you owe the world something too, hence it’s about mutuality. It’s about interdependence, a reciprocal relationship whose net result is apparent to the masses as “independence”. With privilege always comes responsibility. American top astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson concludes, rightly, that we are one with the rest of nature, neither lying above nor below. This is a triumph of systems thinking in practice and country leaders should embrace it.

A Relook at Borderless Impact and Digitalisation Prospects

COVID-19 has been forcing a lockdown in all countries along its contagious path of attacks, indiscriminately and radically. It has been breaching all barriers to change including established practices and perspectives on hygiene and the digital economy. One readily grasps a clear message here: Borderless threats have a more profound impact and are no respecter of geography, economic mass, high offices, or personalities.

COVID-19 has also forced learning institutions, airports, churches, among others to shut down the world over. The novel virus has brought digitalisation into the limelight as the novel nervous system for borderless collaboration in exchanging money, information, and knowledge. For learning institutions, digital platforms as a service are proving their worth in leveraging a new era of Education 4.0 — the globalisation of education in a digitally connected internet-enabled world system. Obstinate critics of the digital transformation and employers who ignore the power of democratisation in the gig economy — a darling of millennials, can only remain relevant for a limited time within a limited vision.

Resisting signs of generational change while assuming that working from the traditional office is the only means to labour productivity cannot go unchallenged. Automation in journalism with examples such as the Washington Post and the extension of automation to other sectors showcase the vast possibilities of digitalisation in today’s fast-changing technology marketplace. In the banking sector, Commerzbank serves as a suitable example of automation for equity research reports. Tapping into the knowledge, skills and international exposure of the diaspora without physical relocation to their native countries supports my conviction that brain drain is an illusion that is quickly fading with the vast possibilities for online collaborative engagements that digitalisation has opened up, much to the advantage of innovative governance models.

With physical money as a dreaded transmitter of COVID-19, the pandemic has illuminated the prospects for the digital economy. E-commerce and smart solutions running on big data facilitated by automation, robotics, sensor technologies, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are now gaining uncommon attention among the masses. Digital transactions such as MPESA have gained immediate currency and wide acceptance — forcing even the otherwise defensive and diehard supporters of shareholder capitalism which are our regular financial service providers to waive charges in favour of mobile money and reconsider the grace period for loans. Given the need for immutability to ensure transactional integrity, blockchain technology now has a special opportunity to grab the attention of leaders. Drones and similar airborne or spaceborne technologies also have a singular chance to challenge policymakers to pass favourable regulations for their deployment in times of rapid response while meeting the imperatives of public safety.

A Relook at Systems Thinking and Stakeholder Capitalism

The strong message is that we all have a stake in the complex which is our planetary system and society. This is the essence of stakeholder capitalism. It is far removed from shareholder capitalism, which rewards only a few investors in an enterprise. The science underpinning the argument for a systems approach has been discussed in detail (read from this link on scientific thinking). Geographically distinct demographic characteristics, or geodemographics, must form part of the systems-thinking approaches political leaders need to deploy in response to pandemics. The veiled message from COVID-19 to leaders is that they must embrace stakeholder capitalism to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is not enough to hype the principle of “Leaving no one behind” yet these three other core sustainability principles are equally crucial:

  • Principle of interconnectedness and indivisibility;
  • Principle of inclusiveness and interdependence; and
  • Principle of multistakeholder partnerships.

A Recourse to Nature for Policy Innovations

In times of crisis fuelled by an environment of liberal economic policies, a new form of capitalism called disaster capitalism can easily take over. This happens because of selfish interests, quite evident in greedy business and political leaders. What genuine leaders must resort to is applied systems thinking. They must value the advice of, and work with, stable minds who look beyond self to deliver well-thought-out, evidence-based and integrated solutions. The COVID-19 pandemic has a footprint that covers beyond public health concerns; it is an economic disaster; it is a social disruptor; more to the point, it is a shaker of the very fragile life-support system in which we are all equal as stakeholders.

Governments must understand the value of research and development (R&D) and support adequate and precise planning informed by spatial intelligence/GIS so as to match geolocation with key needs especially demographics and the corresponding critical services. Planning policies should facilitate land banking and space allowance for emergency response, special needs, and expansions to cater for critical and social infrastructure.

COVID-19 is a strong call for resolute action through both individual responses and policy innovations. The call starts internally with the conscious responsibility of love in prayer and then extends to caution, care, and self-discipline. It grows in scale to include innovative and responsive policy measures, which may take the form of social safety nets. It then progressively peaks in collective global action, informed by sound knowledge and technology-led systems to produce predictive and long-term solutions.

One more instance of finding our systems disjointed and acutely unprepared for another locust invasion, epidemic, or ecological disaster on our lakes and seas will be one too many. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

By Nashon Adero

The author is a lecturer at Taita Taveta University, Kenya, and a youth mentor in Kenya’s Presidential Digital Talent Programme under the Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs. 


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