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In a time of crisis, what is the ‘right’ thing to do?

Wednesday 11 Nov 20


Josef Oehmen
Associate Professor
DTU Management
+45 45 25 60 39

Read more about Joseph’s research

Most of us strive towards doing what is right. But how do we know what the ‘right’ thing to do is during the current corona crisis? What answers can we really trust at a time when the media is full of COVID-19 experts?

By Associate Professor Josef Oehmen specializing in risk management at DTU Management

Not a day goes by without new findings and stories related to the corona pandemic appearing in the media. As an associate professor specializing in risk management, I’m following the situation closely, as my daily work involves researching and advising managers on how to lead in an increasingly unpredictable world. And several of the management tools and mindsets that are gaining ground within my area of research may be useful to us during the corona crisis. Because like businesses, we need to put an end to the illusion that we can analyse our way to a definitive answer to the question of what the right thing to do is. Instead, we need to have an open dialogue about our priorities, be flexible, and dare to ask ourselves the difficult questions along the way.

One of those difficult questions is: How do we avoid panic in this corona situation while also avoiding becoming too relaxed about it and forgetting the seriousness of the situation?

"There are no simple answers to how best to handle the corona crisis. This is frustrating, which is why we need to maintain a constructive and honest dialogue about the choices we make."
Josef Oehmen

In a time of great uncertainty, it might be tempting to think that the best solution is to take the most conservative approach, being as careful as possible. But that’s not necessarily the right thing to do, because every choice has a price. For example, if we ban visits in nursing homes, the elderly will get lonely. If we keep society on shutdown for too long, it will be very costly.

We therefore have to learn to navigate in the situation without giving in to fear when the cases are increasing while also avoiding becoming too lax in our behaviour when the numbers are declining. We need to accept that the guidelines will fluctuate between strict and relaxed as the situation develops. And in a situation like this, it is not a question of finding the perfect solution—it does not exist. It is a question of finding the ‘least worst’ solution.

But how do we do that? We are used to making decisions based on analyses and studies that attempt to predict the future. However, the more dynamic our lives become in a world where the economy, healthcare system, infrastructure, etc. are increasingly interconnected, the harder it is for us to predict and plan our future. And when things are moving at a fast pace, our predictions are eventually overtaken by actual events, rendering the plans useless.

In the case of COVID-19, we usually do not know the state of a situation until 2 to 3 weeks later. Consequently, we should ask ourselves how we can focus less on predicting the future and more on monitoring what is happening now and adapting to the present. Such an approach means that we need to abandon planning for a specific scenario and instead plan for various scenarios. We should have several plans in place for the most important things in society. Applying that method to our daily lives: Instead of one perfect holiday plan, we need several flexible plans. That way, we can ensure that the family will have a good holiday in spite of COVID-19.

We need to accommodate more local solutions in society and be prepared to adapt and change the way we work and live. Instead of laying down a fixed plan, we should ask ourselves how we can be flexible and avoid big failures in relation to the things that are most important to us. And this is true at a societal level as well as on a private level. Having to accept restrictions is never fun. However, flexibility can make it a little easier.

Flexibility and social debate can counter conspiracy theories

In an increasingly complex world, it is perfectly natural for us to look for one simple answer that can clear up all the mess. The desire for simple answers is one of the reasons why conspiracy theories are so appealing. However, when we try to simplify the complex there is a risk that we overlook important details or worse—that we overlook the needs of some groups in the population.

It is therefore important that we consider the consequences before introducing restrictions and solutions; how they will affect different groups in society and how long they should apply. Then we can start prioritizing, because it is one thing to understand the needs and another thing entirely to choose what to act on and be honest about it.

Honest prioritization requires us to—as a minimum—pay attention to what we choose not to prioritize and that we understand it well enough to make an informed decision. This can be difficult, which is why we should invest in constructive and nuanced dialogue about our priorities and choices during the corona crisis.

A topic for such dialogue could be, e.g., the choice between the health of teachers and their families on the one hand and the necessity of our children’s education and socialization and the need for parents to go to work on the other. Or, privately, grandparents’ desire to spend time with their grandchildren versus the focus on the risk of infection. Everyone has a different view of the situation and we therefore need to be open about our priorities and make an extra effort to understand each other.

There are no simple answers to how best to handle the corona crisis. This is frustrating, which is why we need to maintain a constructive and honest dialogue about the choices we make. We cannot analyse our way to a master plan because things are moving so quickly. And while it was previously mainly businesses that were preoccupied with how to act in a time of many risks, it has suddenly become highly relevant for the rest of us as well.

Talking about difficult things has never been easy. As a society, we must continue to focus on asking the difficult questions, so that we can find the ‘least worst solutions’. Thus, we need to think about what the ‘right’ thing to do is—but we should not expect to arrive at one simple answer.

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