Three ways Malaysians can respond faster in high-impact scenarios

MARCH 24 — I hope by now most Malaysians would agree that this “movement restriction” slash quasi-lockdown slash closure-of-almost-everything should have happened earlier — much earlier, at least a week or two in advance if not in late February itself. 

What follows are three principles I hope all of us can remember in order that future national crisis scenarios (or even potential emergencies within your organisation) can be addressed earlier:

1. Think consequences, not “probabilities”

Undoubtedly the #1 reason why most Malaysians remained complacent even in early March (and despite all the news coming from China, Italy and so on) is because we did not believe we could get infected. 

We saw the “low probability” of contracting the virus and, coupled with some pretty bad conceptualisation of systematic risk, simply decided that we still had lots of time, there was “no need to panic” and so on.

But this is a mistake for one simple reason: In a high-impact scenario, you must throw probability out the window.

You buy house insurance not because of the “low probability” of a fire happening, but because of the severe consequences of your place burning down. 

You wear seat belts not because of the “low probability” of another car hitting you, but because if you don’t and a car does you may break your neck. 

You never allow your small child to follow strangers at the mall not because it is “unlikely” that a stranger at any one time will kidnap your child, but because you fully understand the irreversibility of your child being taken away.

Same thing with Covid-19.

What very few people saw (and what many ignored) was the magnitude of suffering should any of our elderly friends or colleagues get infected. 

This — when coupled with the additional burdens to our healthcare infrastructure (so “obvious” now but almost entirely dismissed even in early March) — drove a small group of people to repeatedly call for business and school closures and an early lockdown. 

They stopped caring about “probabilities” and called for the right thing to be done.

Therefore, always think impact, impact, impact. And stop debating about odds (even privately, let alone in public).

2. Use the “less is more” principle for news and information

Another thing which fueled our complacency and false optimism, ironically, was all the data and information we were receiving. 

I have lost count how many times people said, “Oh, well, the outbreak is confined mainly to those who were at the Sri Petaling mosque” or “Don’t worry, the numbers in our state are still low” or “Relax lah, the virus isn’t as strong in hot-weather countries like Malaysia,” or “Hey it looks like the virus is less severe on youths”, etc.

Such an attitude ignores the fact that for low-impact scenarios (where nothing really important is at stake) you can be right or wrong, it’s almost irrelevant. 

But for high-impact scenarios, you can be right many times it will not matter — but if you’re wrong even ONCE, the game is up.

Hence, the responsible thing to do is IGNORE news or information which tempts us to feel “good” and “safe”, whilst blind-siding us to an iceberg which could be just around the corner. 

Do you remember the turkeys a few weeks before Thanksgiving Day? Farmers kept feeding them well, they were getting fatter and fatter, and life was good i.e. all the data was positive until it wasn’t.

Ditto those drivers along the North-South highway who believe they’re Malaysian Vin Diesels going at north of 160 kilometres per hour, zipping in and out of lanes like they’re chasing down terrorists. I know one or two. 

Whenever they are told to please drive more carefully, their response is usually along the lines of, “Hey, look, I’ve been driving this way for years, not a single accident.”

These speed demons kept looking at the wrong “data” and, thus, will one day not be able to look at any more data.

So one tip for the future: For potentially catastrophic situations, assign 1-2 people in your organization (those who have a knack for sniffing out complacency which threatens survival) to screen out news and information most pertinent to decision-making, given the risks. Let them decide which information the leaders must take into account.

3. Focus more on the UNKNOWN than the known

This principle basically encapsulates the first two. A person strongly cognisant of risks and uncertainty (especially in the light of high-impact scenarios) will always be more mindful of what he doesn’t know than what he knows.

(It is ironic, therefore, that someone who felt I was over-reacting in early March actually asked me what it was that I “knew” which everybody didn’t; it’s precisely the other way round.)

A fundamental problem today is people who know too much, have numerous MBAs, have watched a million TED talks, read so many books, all of which results in a view of reality limited by whatever they think they know whilst remaining oblivious to the danger emanating from what they can’t imagine they don’t know.

It’s like a kid with a new bike who thinks he’s watched enough YouTube videos such that he believes he knows how to handle speeding down a hill. 

He would most probably ignore his mum, who hasn’t seen a single vid about cycling, but who nevertheless is smart enough to say, “Please don’t accelerate down a steep slope.”

The kid relied on his oh-so-amazing Knowns; his mum on the Unknown. Who do you think is more “rational”?

This folly demonstrated itself so clearly in Britain’s early handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, where they hoped to create “herd immunity” by allowing thousands (or was it millions?) of their population to be infected. 

The British government and the “experts” in the National Health Services used this algorithm, that formula, this recovery rate, that death rate, this infection rate and concluded that — voilà! — this plan is good and the risks are “manageable.” 

I tell you now, the aged aunty in my apartment who began cancelling her line-dancing classes in early March had more rational good sense than the entire UK Cabinet did — despite “knowing” much less.

Conclusion: Always prioritise safety and caution above what you think you know. When life and death is at stake, forget the smart-alec MBA who’s still debating “pros and cons.” Listen to the cleaning lady who says, “Act now.”

Stay safe, everyone.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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