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03 APRIL 2021
COVID-19: Ignore the science and you will crash and burn

by Jon Foster-Pedley: Dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.


The government is rightfully concerned about an imminent third wave of infection hitting us after the Easter weekend – precisely because a growing number of South Africans aren’t. Managing this pandemic has been incredibly onerous for politicians, scientists and business leaders because of the attitude of some of the people.

In fairness, you can’t be too harsh on the general public, because everyone has been forced to pay a high personal price to avoid becoming infected. Lives have been unimaginably disrupted, livelihoods have been at best constrained and in worst case scenarios lost entirely.

At the same time, there’s a growing tendency to think the danger has passed; infections are at an all-time low 12 months after we first went into lockdown, the death rate is down. It’s understandable if people think the risk is less than it ever was.

But it isn’t.

We have done well, and we have succeeded in surfing the first and the second wave, but a third wave lurks in wait. The virus is mutating all over the world as vaccination programmes ramp up to deal with what was the first strain of COVID-19. Italy is re-entering lockdown, COVID in Brazil is out of control and here at home our vaccination roll out is still in its infancy.

The danger clearly has not passed. Instead, what we have to do is learn to live with it. To do that we need to continue to trust in the science and the scientists and ignore the foolish bravado of those who think they’re either immune to the risk or that the risk is nowhere near as bad as it is painted – perhaps, though this is increasingly unlikely, because they don’t know anyone who has died as a result of it.

It’s a dangerous and foolhardy attitude to take.

My father was a fighter pilot in World War II, becoming the second youngest group captain at the time in the Royal Air Force. By all accounts he was a great leader and a very brave man. He used to say war was not about madcap heroism, because it was far better to keep your own people alive as far as possible not just because of the cost of training but because of the unmatchable value of experience. You can apply the same mantra to business.

You shouldn’t want to risk people’s lives. It’s intolerable from a humanitarian aspect, but it doesn’t make business sense either. The key to overcoming challenges and remaining resilient is to keep going - understanding the nature of the danger or risk that you face and acting accordingly - not ignoring them and forging ahead through bravado. Informed, targeted, disciplined and courageous action is a far more useful thing than blundering bravado.

Many people have started complaining about their personal freedoms being unfairly curtailed by lockdown. They do that because they can’t see the risk, or if they do, don’t care about the risk to others. What makes it even worse is that they are enthralled by the risk takers who seem to get away with it, and become encouraged in turn to throw caution to the wind.

Like any risky environment, you have to understand the degrees of constraints you are under to create the degrees of freedom you have to aspire to. When you do, you can safely perform under what would otherwise be very dangerous circumstances.

I used to fly competitive aerobatics. It looks wildly dangerous - but it shouldn’t be. You don’t just climb into the aircraft, take off and start throwing it around the sky. You actually break down your routine into its constituent parts, you understand the science, you structure what and how you practice, staying within your limits as you constantly push yourself, and so improve and become fluent.

If you don’t do that, you crash and burn - literally. Or, in the case of COVID-19, you catch the virus and become just another statistic and spreader. The problem we have is that many people refuse to consider the constraints, because of the price they perceive they have to pay. Instead, they opt to pursue their personal freedom at any cost for them to feel alive, free and self-actualised, irrespective of the cost to others of that same right. It’s immature self-absorption instead of mature, responsible smarts.

It’s an attitude that is as simultaneously selfish as it is as big a reason for many of the existential crises the world faces today, from climate change to over population and rampant inequality. The truth is that it is only when you understand the nature of your constraints that you can start to become powerfully free.

Understanding the science is a fundamental part of this process. Elon Musk venturing to Mars – a place with no water nor breathable air that no one has ever managed to reach – is a project that is impossible without science. Swimming for extended periods underwater is the same. You need science to understand scuba and decompression.

And so too it is with combating COVID-19. The fact that people can go in and out of shopping centres with just a mask and some hand sanitiser, doesn’t mean that we’ve done everything we can in this battle. We need to rethink the whole process of air-conditioning buildings, especially offices and universities for that matter.

Once again, we have to revert to science. The virus has no mind; its spread is simply a dispassionate mathematical calculation. The most effective intervention to deal with COVID is to keep the virus away from people in the first place. To do this in spaces, we need to exchange stale air with fresh. Ventilation and air conditioning companies in South Africa have been slow off the mark in understanding pandemic control, in my experience, and most office ventilation and air-conditioning systems are inadequate for this task.

The average human temperature, as we have all discovered this last year is 36°C. The optimum air-conditioned temperature is 21°C. Warm breath rises. Human breath is moist. Water vapour is lighter than air. That’s the science. What this means is that COVID positive people effectively aerosolise the virus as they exhale and the hot moist breath rises, but most office ventilation systems pressurise rooms from the ceiling and drive air down, while most aircons simply recirculate. This is both a recipe for disaster and an opportunity for smart ventilation companies. We need to exchange stale air with fresh air in offices 6 - 10 times an hour, 20 times an hour for conferences rooms, and the incoming air should come from outside .

Without effective fresh air ventilation, high-population-density buildings and any enclosed and crowded space become petri dishes for cross infection. It’s just science: The science of air flow and the science of the virus. When you understand those, you understand the constraints of current systems and predicaments – and then you can really start working on increasing the degrees of freedom by resolving the issues of the constraints.

We can and should minimise the risks - you can change the ventilation systems in buildings. You can vaccinate the population, but you still won’t be safe. The virus is mutating – that’s what science tells us. Every time the virus comes up against a roadblock, it evolves to get past it. Which is why, even though our infection rates are down in South Africa, there are new waves of infection outbreaks cresting all over the world.

Easter has arrived. It’s a great time to be with family – especially relatives we might not have seen for months. It’s a great time to celebrate getting this far and being together, but it’s not the right time to throw caution to the wind – for any reason.

Let’s keep on doing what we’re doing. Let’s understand our constraints so that we can truly be as free as we can, without hurting anyone else in the process.
Useful resources:

Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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