• Nick Turner

COVID-19: Scenarios to think the unthinkable...

Updated: Mar 4


"We have nothing to fear but fear itself". So said Franklin D Roosevelt at his presidential inauguration in 1933. At the time, the US was in the midst of an economic depression. If we are to believe the most pessimistic reports about the impact of the current outbreak of corona-virus, the global economy maybe on a similar path.

Or is it?


It is in such times of uncertainty that scenario planning can be most helpful, in trying to understand and most importantly prepare, for what may come. Leaning heavily on lessons from the past and work I helped to lead at Morgan Stanley when Avian Flu was doing the rounds in 2005, below I have laid out four different scenarios to help us prepare for the potential impact of COVID-19 on the global economy, geopolitics, society, business, as well as our friends and families.


The framework is built on 2 critical uncertainties:


  1. The nature of global coordination; "slow and inadequate" vs. "fast and efficient"

  2. The nature of public response; "panicked" vs. "disciplined"


Global coordination: What might impact how governments, agencies and healthcare authorities respond?


To be "fast and efficient", we would need to see:


  • The majority of countries have developed a pandemic response plan (e.g the UK's current plan)

  • Good surveillance and monitoring of outbreaks

  • Transparent and trustworthy communication and stakeholder engagement

  • National testing of suspect cases and international verification

  • As soon as appropriate, restricting people movements

  • Exchange of clinical data speeding up the development of vaccine

  • Compensation structures for businesses / individuals severely impacted

  • Global agreement on equitable and effective access to vaccines

  • Appropriate distribution of scarce resources (healthcare, food etc.)


Conversely, "slow and inadequate" coordination would entail:


  • A low percentage of countries with plans in place, neither for prevention, nor for treatment once the pandemic spreads

  • Removing WHO’s rights to take drastic but essential global measures

  • Lack of international standard protocols for rapid diagnosing and testing

  • Hushing up of suspected cases to protect local or national interests

  • No agreements on licensing of drugs

  • No compensation structures agreed


How may the nature of "public response" vary?


A more "disciplined" approach may include:


  • Open dialogue with and among politicians

  • Trust in scarce resource allocation policies – reduced stockpiling

  • Trust in authorities

  • Focused and selective curbing of spending, using substitution where necessary

  • Medical services called upon only for really urgent situations

  • Self-organising groups provide information and support

  • Media operate in a restrained and responsible way


A more "panicked" response may be illustrated by:


  • Extreme pressure on politicians for “action”

  • Local “initiatives” to protect streets, neighbourhoods

  • Stockpiling of masks, antibacterials and disinfectants, including those that are not proven to work

  • Sharp reduction in spending: no flying, no holidays, no going out

  • Self-imposed social exclusion: keeping children at home, excessive self-quarantining / work absenteeism

  • Looking for scapegoats: targets for anxiety, distrust and anger

  • Medical services inundated with non-urgent requests

  • Shift to far costlier production procedures


Crossing these two uncertainties into a 2x2 scenario framework, results in four potential future outcomes:

COVID-19 scenarios 2020

By exploring each of these scenarios in turn, assuming them to be all equally plausible ("what if?"), allows organisations to ask hugely insightful "so what?" questions, develop customised implications, before formulating a robust plan of action ("what next?").


Generic lessons learnt from previous pandemics:


  1. The spread of disease is unpredictable, with great variation seen in the historical patterns (severity of illness, mortality rate, pattern of spread)

  2. An exponential increase is seen in the number of cases over a very brief time, often measured in weeks, leading to sharp increase in the need for medical care

  3. Pandemics tend to unfold in waves, subsequent waves tend to be more severe

  4. Virological surveillance is crucial in confirming the onset of pandemics

  5. Most pandemics have originated in parts of Asia where dense populations of humans live in close proximity to farm animals

  6. Quarantines and travel restrictions have shown little effect in curbing the disease spread, they might impact the speed at which the pandemic spreads

  7. Delaying the spread is desirable (less strain on medical care system)

  8. Vaccines inevitably play a vital role in pandemics, countries with domestic manufacturing capacity will be the first to receive them

  9. The tendency of pandemics to be more severe in later waves may extend the time before large supplies of vaccine are needed, but the interval between waves may be as short as a month

  10. Pandemics will cause excess mortality at the extremes of the lifespan and in persons with underlying chronic disease


To explore further what COVID-19 may mean to your organisation and to seek assistance in preparation, contact us directly at connect@stratforma.com or +44 (0)7879 486544

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