Ezekiel Emanuel’s op-ed “China’s zero-Covid policy is self-defeating” (Opinion, September 8) describes well the damage done by the current China policy. However, such pitfalls in decision-making are not uncommon. Where China goes wrong is it makes the classic mistake of conflating the “complicated” with the “complex”.
Research by the late Brenda Zimmerman, a renowned scholar of complexity science and adviser to the Plexus Institute in Washington, and more recently Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, show that “complicated” problems require analytical solutions which can often be found by a linear controlled approach. “Complex” problems are very different, and for them linear analytical approaches do not work well.
The Wuhan strain (and Delta which followed), with an infection rate Ro, the basic reproduction number in a population with no immunity and no containment measures, of about three was a “complicated” challenge. One could predict through analysis how to control the outbreak. And so the initial China policy worked well. While the rest of the world suffered, China for two years had relative freedoms, and indeed kept the global economy on a fairly even keel. However, Omicron is far more complex. Its infection rate is a quantum leap. It is impossible to analyse and predict where it will occur.
It is interesting to note that the zero-Covid policy in China has evolved into a “dynamic” zero-Covid policy, with a localised lockdown of a compound here, a factory there, or a brief circuit breaker for a smaller town. However, the present approach to try to control the breakouts of Omicron is simply unsustainable, given the complexity. Covid, like flu or the common cold, is here to stay. Time will tell how much further the policy in China evolves, but it will necessarily change.
The sooner it does, the better it will be for China and the world economy.
Professor Nick Obolensky
European Centre for Executive Development (Cedep)
Insead, Fontainebleau, France