What lessons can we learn from the coronavirus outbreak?

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze/The Guardian

Everywhere you look, you see disruption. International markets are in turmoil with a recession in many nations almost assured. National governments are in crisis mode implementing unprecedented financial and social measures. And worried citizens are in a state of panic with fear causing irrational and unhelpful behaviour.

Welcome to the world of COVID-19. What confronts you is not a scene from a disaster movie but the brutal reality of a global health emergency. The coronavirus started as an epidemic in China and quickly morphed into a global pandemic. It has upended life as we know it and has reshaped how we work, learn, shop, travel and interact.

We are dealing simultaneously with a health crisis and an economic meltdown. Saving lives is killing jobs as governments make impossible choices between health and wealth. Epidemiologists and economists alike are unable to put hard numbers on the human and financial costs of this rolling calamity. What is clear is that infection rates globally have been rising while the job market has been in free fall.

There is no unanimity of opinion as to how long it will take to curb the spread of the coronavirus and how the pandemic will end. Predictably, many apocalyptic predictions have been made about COVID-19. If we ignore the doomsday scenarios, the best-case is that we will get it under control in the coming months and life will largely return to normal. The worse-case is that it may keep infecting people for some time causing outbreaks until there’s a vaccine.

In the meantime, the pandemic should act as a wake-up call for humanity. There are serious lessons to be learned for all of us. The ground is shifting beneath our feet and this will change the social and political landscape. Like the Global Financial Crisis, the coronavirus is an Earth-shattering event which will have far-reaching consequences.

Already, commentators are writing opinion pieces about lessons arising from the pandemic. One such commentator is world-renowned author and historian, Professor Yuval Noah Harari. In an article he penned for the London based international daily newspaper, Financial Times, on 20 March titled, The World After Coronavirus, Harari stated:

… the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive – but we will inhabit a different world. Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. What happens when everybody works from home and communicates only at a distance? What happens when entire schools and universities go online? In normal times, governments, businesses and educational boards would never agree to conduct such experiments. But these aren’t normal times.

It’s said that life is lived forward but evaluated backward. Put another way, in the thick of the moment it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, but with the benefit of hindsight things become clearer. Given this, it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions about the lasting impact of the COVID-19 saga. While there will undoubtedly be more to come, here are some early lessons.

The first lesson is that the coronavirus will force the return of big government. The pandemic is a stark reminder of the role governments play in our lives and how vital they are in times of crisis. A key duty of any government is to protect the well-being of its citizens which is why governments have been leading the battle against the coronavirus. Hearing the words – “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” – is no longer terrifying. The outbreak will strengthen nation states – the need for them has become infectious.

The second lesson concerns the illusion of borders. Global challenges have no national borders and viruses do not carry passports. No one is geographically immune to a virus as it easily crosses borders. Neither screening travellers nor banning travellers creates an impermeable barrier that absolutely protects a country from importing diseases. Undetected cases slip through – borders cannot be completely sealed and will always be leaky. This is the reality of living in a global village.

The third lesson is that we need to change our self-centered ways. Not enough of us have shown grace under pressure. There has been a lack of camaraderie. Panic has prevailed over common sense. Many have behaved like a marauding swarm of locusts stripping supermarket shelves bare. We needed to be at our selfless best but have been at our selfish worst. The crisis has unmasked who we really are and proved beyond doubt that individual behavior has a profound impact on society. Many of us have failed the civic responsibility test.

The fourth lesson concerns the role of the media and the dangers of using fear-inducing language. “Facts, not fear”, will stop the virus said the World Economic Forum. “Words matter” warned the World Health Organisation which urged the media not to use terms like “plague” or “apocalypse” or to describe people with COVID-19 as “spreading the disease”. These pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Sensationalist reporting is seen as a “bigger contagion” than the virus itself. The media stands accused of whipping people into a frenzy with irresponsible coverage. But will they be brought to account?

The fifth lesson comes in the form of an almost unspeakable question: Should we sacrifice the economy to save lives? Put another way, is the cure worse than the disease? Policy-making invariably involves trade-offs and governments have prioritised mortality risk over economic risk. But containment policies to “flatten the curve” have cost millions of jobs and trillions of dollars and some see this as too high a price to pay. I believe that governments were correct in not letting the pandemic play out unchecked. However, the policy of “do whatever it takes and whatever it costs” will be challenged as the playbook for future crises.

Undoubtedly, more lessons will reveal themselves as the pandemic unfolds. For example, is it possible to quickly resuscitate an economy following a “controlled hibernation” or is growth stunted for an extended period? Only time will tell the full extent of the damage caused by a microscopic, invisible enemy that has brought us to our knees. But one thing is clear:

The human species is not invincible!


Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer
Ductus Consulting

3 Replies to “What lessons can we learn from the coronavirus outbreak?”

  1. Well said Paul. Especially about the Media. They have a lot to answer for creating fear within a lot of people. I wish people learn that they should only listen to a small percentage of what the media say. As the saying goes, there are always 3 side to a story. It’s a matter of listening to all 3 sides and to work out the truth in that. Even then we will never have the full truth.
    Thank you for always giving us your wisdom and something for people to think about.

  2. Hello Paul,

    Thank you for the factual and your perspective on Covid. Very informative.
    Many lessons indeed and more to come!



  3. Paul, thank you for drawing together some big picture themes and for articulating the big decisions humanity is facing. As a community we need a re-set and you have told us why. Excellent blog.

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