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COVID-19 and the Uncertainty Trap

How Rationality Slowed Down the Global Response


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Amir Stepak

3 years ago | 4 min read

This is the first installment in a 3-part series on uncertainty during COVID-19, drawing on my dissertation research on foreign policy responses to crises.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to rage, the public conversation has naturally turned to its causes.

It’s now widely acknowledged that the global response was too hesitant and slow. It took the Trump Administration, for example, 53 days following the first confirmed U.S. coronavirus case to declare a national emergency. Most other countries were late as well.

The lackadaisical response is puzzling because, in mid-January, we already knew enough to justify much stronger measures. We knew that the virus is highly contagious and deadly.

We knew it had reached the United States and was quickly spreading to other countries. We also knew of dire shortages of testing kits, ventilators, and other medical supplies.

And we knew that rapid action could thwart the virus’s spread, saving numerous lives and mitigating the economic damage.

Instead, we waited. Why didn’t we act sooner?

Explanations have so far focused mainly on the misguided words and actions of specific world leaders, such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. By downplaying the crisis and avoiding timely measures, they’ve certainly earned their share of the blame.

But we shouldn’t fool ourselves. Trump and Johnson were hardly alone. This was a failure of global proportions, one that crossed continents and ideological divides.

To see why — and to be better prepared next time — we need to go beyond individual leaders.

When we do, we find a systemic problem, one that has plagued responses not merely to this crisis but to nearly every other major crisis in recent memory. It’s called the Uncertainty Trap.

The Uncertainty Trap

The Uncertainty Trap is a situation in which our desire to make the best decision leads us, because of uncertainty, to make the very worst one for times of crisis: to wait.

Here’s how it works. Ordinarily, when facing a decision, we try to optimize — we choose the option that is likely to satisfy us most. When we’re unsure, we research, gather information, and then decide.

Sometimes, even after we research, we still can’t tell which option is better. We’re too uncertain. Why? Perhaps the situation is too unfamiliar, or the information is too ambiguous.

In the vast majority of cases, that’s fine — the stakes are low enough that we’ll be alright no matter what we choose.

But there are times when the stakes are high. And in those times, we understandably care deeply about getting things right. When the stakes are high, the options are almost never equally good — one of them is likely far better, the other far worse. We just can’t tell which is which.

What do we do when the stakes are high and there is too much uncertainty? Most often, we wait. We research some more. We take piecemeal steps that cause little harm but do little good.

This is all very rational. After all, maybe tomorrow we’ll know more. Isn’t waiting just one day to make the right decision better than making the wrong decision today? And the next day, when the information fails to arrive, we again decide to wait another day, then another, and so on.

Before long, the choice is no longer ours, with sometimes devastating consequences.

We’ve fallen into the Uncertainty Trap. Through a series of incremental rational choices, we made what, in a broader view, was irrational and damaging. In trying to make the best decision, we made the worst one.

Enter COVID-19

Because all crises are, by definition, rare and significant, they all involve high levels of uncertainty and high stakes.

The early COVID-19 crisis was no exception. Back in January, we didn’t have answers to some very basic questions about the virus’s incubation period, fatality rates, immunity, and treatment.

Answering those questions was undoubtedly essential for identifying the optimal response. In ordinary times, it would have been advisable to wait for such answers.

But since crises are not ordinary times, our political leaders quickly fell into the Uncertainty Trap. They kept waiting, hoping that tomorrow will bring answers to guide their actions. And so they waited, then waited some more, taking token measures. Soon, the epidemic spread beyond their control, leaving them no choice but to take the harshest possible steps and hope for the best.

They could have escaped the Uncertainty Trap by being a little less rational. With such high stakes, it was better to act quickly and forcefully — even if sub-optimally — than to make the optimal choice too late.

Still, a small number of countries offered glimpses of what an alternative response could have looked like. They acted early, whether by implementing local quarantines and school closures or enforcing comprehensive travel restrictions. How did they avoid falling into the Uncertainty Trap?

Some, including Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, and Hong Kong, experienced an earlier version of the Coronavirus in the 2003 SARS outbreak.

This likely removed some of their uncertainty and improved their preparedness. In other places, such as New Zealand and Denmark, high public trust in government reduced the political costs of taking quick action.

This made it possible to break out of the Uncertainty Trap earlier on.

Preparing for the Next Crisis

When it comes to crises, we understandably tend to focus on the personality and actions of world leaders.

But we should acknowledge that the global response to COVID-19 represents a systemic failure that transcends specific leaders. Failing to understand this will doom us to repeating our mistakes.

When that next crisis hits, we can escape the Uncertainty Trap and act with the necessary speed and determination. This will require better preparation of equipment, plans, and public expectations.

But most fundamentally, leaders must be willing to break free of rationality’s optimizing imperative by taking timely action, even if imperfect. Initially, not terrible will have to be good enough. Later there will hopefully be time to do better.

This article was originally published on medium.

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