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  • Writer's pictureNick Turner

COVID-19: Scenarios to think the unthinkable and prepare for the uncertain...

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

The speed and severity of the current coronavirus crisis has caught most by surprise and left many flatfooted in their response. Bill Gates, among others, has been predicting such a outbreak for years. In a 2014 blog, shortly after running a workshop for corporate risk managers, I questioned that given the mega-trends of urbanisation and globalisation, whether such a crisis was inevitable. But, rather than crowing about who was right and who wasn't, it is much more helpful to think through what might happen from here and the best way to prepare and respond.

It is in such times of uncertainty that scenario planning can be most helpful. 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 / alternative futures. Be reviewing each plausible future in turn, developing key implications can help us prepare for the potential impact of COVID-19 on the global economy, geopolitics, society and our own organisations.

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; "ill-disciplined" 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)

  • Leading nations seek global solutions

  • Transparency & trust

  • WHO / multinationals play critical role

  • Good surveillance & monitoring

  • National testing with international verification

  • Exchange of clinical data

  • Global agreement on vaccines

  • Wealthier nations assist the less advantaged

Conversely, "slow and inadequate" coordination would entail:

  • A focus on domestic solutions

  • Lack of global leadership

  • WHO / multinationals side-lined

  • Lack of international standards for rapid diagnosing and testing

  • Suppression of data to protect local or national interests

  • No agreements on licensing of drugs

  • Hoarding and trade restrictions

  • “Everyone for themselves”

How may the nature of "public response" vary?

A more "disciplined" approach may include:

  • Open dialogue with & among politicians

  • Trust in authorities

  • Faith in scarce resource allocation policies

  • Focused and selective curbing of spending

  • Medical services used for only urgent situations

  • Self-organising groups provide information & support

  • Media operate in a restrained & responsible way

A more "ill-disciplined" response may be illustrated by:

  • Media whip up initial overreaction

  • Extreme pressure on politicians for “action”

  • Local “initiatives” to protect neighbourhoods

  • People tire of lock-down and flout the rules

  • Look for scapegoats

  • Medical services inundated with non-urgent requests

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

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 or +44 (0)7879 486544

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