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Spikes, outbreaks and waves
Written by Paul Gray, consulting partner
1 July 2020
A spike: a thin, pointed piece of rigid material; a sudden increase.
An outbreak: a sudden occurrence, often of something unpleasant – war, violence or disease.
A wave: a movement of the hand expressing a greeting or signal; a long, curved body of water; a sudden occurrence of or increase in a phenomenon, feeling, or emotion.
Are we to wait, warily, for whatever may befall us next, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson puts it?
Midnight—and joyless June gone by,
And from the deluged park
The cuckoo of a worse July
Is calling thro’ the dark
I rather prefer the sentiments of the anonymous 13th century writer (also available on YouTube if you prefer):
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springeth the wude nu,
But who could possibly justify choosing the cheerful cuccu over its sibling harbinger of worse to come? After all, coronavirus has not gone away.
Earlier this week we saw a tightening of restrictions in Leicester, following a significant increase in cases there. Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, secretary of state for health Matt Hancock said, “We recommend to people in Leicester, stay at home as much as you can, and we recommend against all but essential travel to, from and within Leicester.”
That is interesting on a number of fronts. Direct engagement from the secretary of state in a decision about one city; the restrictions are “recommended”; and a recognition that the targeted actions in factories, workplaces and schools over the previous 10 days had not worked.
Meanwhile, Germany’s coronavirus ‘R’ rate rose to 2.88 last week, largely as a result of the outbreak at a meat processing plant at Gütersloh in North Rhine-Westphalia. Initially some 7,000 people were sent into quarantine as a result of the outbreak, and schools and kindergartens in the region that had reopened have closed until at least after the summer holidays. The districts of Gütersloh and Warendorf went back into lockdown, affecting more than 600,000 people. The restrictions on Warendorf have since been lifted again, but Gütersloh remains in lockdown until 7 July, on a precautionary basis.
Beyond the dictionary definitions rehearsed above, in the context of Covid-19 there may be some technical differences between a spike, an outbreak and a wave, albeit in some reports they appear to be used interchangeably, which dilutes any useful specificity.
In any case, no government thinks that the virus has gone away. No government believes that it will go away soon. There is plenty of evidence here and elsewhere that the virus can flare up and that these flare-ups can often be local. If they are identified in time, they can also be dealt with locally.
It would be possible to discuss at some length whether, and if so how, borders might or might not be closed. In certain extreme circumstances such an action could be necessary. But the evidence from both Germany and England so far is that if outbreaks are traced and appropriate measures are taken, they can be contained. The approach to testing and protecting individuals matters.
But here is the point. Rather than debating borders, or whether to prepare for a spike, an outbreak or a wave, leaders could be asking themselves some other useful questions instead.
What am I doing to help my employees and customers to avoid transmission of the virus by observing guidance about hand-washing, face masks and distancing?
Are there other things that I could or should be doing?
What conversations am I having that will help me to understand what among those measures actually works in practice for employees, customers and suppliers?
How can I re-imagine the way we do our business so that it is as effective and resilient as possible, even if there is a local temporary shutdown, or a wider reintroduction of restrictions?
What lockdowns in other geographies or sectors could affect my business?
Can my organisation function if parts of its footprint are locked down while others are not?
Who else could I learn from, and who could help, in these unique times?
A focus on what we can do, and on what we can control, offers the best prospect of keeping the virus at bay, and of enjoying the summer while it lasts. A positive commitment to doing what we can, based on what we know, is a key requirement for leaders everywhere now.