Hannes Leo

finished: 6.4.20

 

Each epidemic produces data that help assess its spread and future course. Yet the precision of these estimates depends largely on the quality of data used. This is particularly pungent while the epidemic is in full swing. For this reason and my professional background – an economist – this contribution is not (!) intended to inform decision makers that are managing the crisis on a daily basis but rather focuses on some general traits that are related to disruptive events like the Covid-19 pandemic. There are of course more disruptive events than pandemics: natural disaster, laboratory outbreaks or intended or unintended man made events (see Leo – Gadner – Geiger, 2014). Still the first task here is to understand what is happening now before we turn to a broader assessment of disruptive events. We need you and many other participants to discuss the potential disruptions that will be caused by the present crisis. 

Out of curiosity, I re-estimated an Italian model by Franco Peracchi (Centini, 2020) on the spread of the Corona virus. Replicating the estimates worked well. Figure 1 shows the original estimate the erratic blue line is the number of new infection based on official Italian data. The continuous orange line is the estimate of daily new infections. Interestingly, the data clearly indicates that the number of new infections is on the decline in Italy and would reach zero about 50 days after it started its steep increase. 

Figure 1: New positive cases in Italy

Source: https://scienze.fanpage.it/quando-saranno-azzerati-i-contagi-da-coronavirus-in-italia-la-previsione-per-ogni-regione/

Using more up to date Italian and Austrian data (i.e. until 2nd of April 2020) not only confirms the original estimate but reveals that in both countries the number of new infections is already on the decline (figure 2). While the development over time and the resulting shape of the curve are similar, the disease showed up earlier in official statistics in Italy and will last a few days longer there than in Austria. If the observed trend continues, the model predicts that in both countries new infections might be close to zero by the end of the first half of April.  

Figure 2: New positive cases in Austria and Italy (data until 30.03.20)

This statement  is in no way a “danger is over” message as a new wave might start anytime soon. This is clearly indicated by the shaded curves in figure 1. Whether the downward slope will materialise as forecasted depends on the efficiency of the measures taken. As we know – we are coming from a state with zero infections – a small number of infected persons may start the next pandemic wave. Also, the number of people infected during this period will remain high thus the likelihood of new infections is also high. 

So the important decision is when and how the present restrictions are going to be lifted in order to get back to “normal” as the costs of the lockdown are immense. Answering this question depends on the assessment of the overall spread of the virus in the population and the repertoire of measures to control local new outbreaks of the pandemic. Both areas are far from clear at the moment: 

  • Assessing how the virus spread within the population needs more and better information on how many people are and were infected. The present “testing, testing, testing” mantra is thus fully justified and a precondition for designing strategies to lift the current lockdown.  
  • The virus always starts with the first patient and there will be new outbreaks in the months to come. The size of the outbreaks depends on the timing and nature of interventions. Notably Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Hongkong were successful in containing the pandemic early and without drastic shutdowns of the economic and societal life. Still, present developments indicate that the pandemic might easily come back. 
  • The outbreaks in most other countries are far more widespread and the resulting measures far more severe. Strategies to fight future outbreaks will aim at keeping them local and will have to build on the experiences of the few successful countries and adapt the system dealing with them accordingly. 

The real task for policy makers is now to quickly learn, bring disaster control strategies up to where they should have been and create structures in the public sector that are able to manage unprecedented events. 

Particularly in Europe and the USA, the virus has demonstrated how ill adapted most countries are in fighting pandemics or in reacting to whatever disruption is out there. Both the reaction time, the underlying assumptions, and the ability to discern and forecast the size of the pandemic were underwhelming. An efficient – or at least effective – public sector is a precondition to reacting to new circumstances that go beyond emulating existing routines. 

This is not to say that many people and organisations have reacted outstandingly – particularly in the health system – to dramatic changes and accomplished reorganisations and levels of service with yet unseen speed. Still issues like the shortage of protective equipment, the underdeveloped testing capacities, the missing (European) solidarity and cooperation stick in the mind. The early efforts of the European Commission to coordinate reactions and order missing equipment were rejected by over-confident representatives from member states. That some of them now blame the European Union for not acting up during the crisis is simply irresponsible. 

Returning to the starting point: the Corona disruption will shape the course of 2020 and beyond in yet unforeseen manner as the disruptions are not going to be over – if we are lucky – after the first wave of the virus. 

The reactions during this time are critical for a number of reasons: First, the situation is highly complex and nobody is doing a good job in forecasting complex developments: Many perspective have to be studied and somehow integrated to form a consistent few of the main development trends.  Being too narrow in the assessment or intransparent in order to avoid later scrutiny might go along with undue influence from elites and groups with vested interests that are well placed to influence the decision making process. The same holds for the time horizon of decision making: short term issues dominate the agenda. This is particularly true if there are only fuzzy long term strategies in place as can be said for most Western democracies at the moment. We will take up this topics – decision making in disruptive times – in the next blog. 

For now, we are starting a process to find the most disruptive events ahead in order to deliberate on these issues and shape expectations  of both private and public decisions makers. We had a similar and rather rewarding process on disruptive events 7 years ago and use this approach now to unravel the development ahead. Please go to the discussion on Discuto to help us identify and evaluate disruptive events that may come out of the Covid-19 crisis. We are looking forward to your contributions. 

References

Andrea Centini, Quando saranno azzerati i contagi da coronavirus in Italia: la previsione per ogni regione,  https://scienze.fanpage.it/quando-saranno-azzerati-i-contagi-da-coronavirus-in-italia-la-previsione-per-ogni-regione/ , 30.3.2020. 

Leo, Hannes, Gadner, Johannes, Geiger, Wilhelm, Disruptive events and how politics can deal with them – A case study on e-collaboration and bottom-up collaborative foresight as potential toosl for effective policy developments, Cedem Conference, 2014, download.


 

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