What does System Thinking have to do with Coronavirus? And why should I care?

👉 Why is Coronavirus the right virus to cause a global pandemic?

Short answer: because effective factors come together. They are:

Incubation period
Ease of transmission,
and Smart purpose — — Unlike Ebola, it doesn’t want to kill every single human. It just wants to kill enough and leave irreversible damage

This article is all looking at the spread of the Coronavirus from the lens of System Theory.

👉 Why should I read this instead of doing an emergency grocery? How does System Theory relate to Coronavirus?

We live in dynamic systems. “Our world is filled with dynamic systems; all populations, human and otherwise, are dynamic systems, epidemics are dynamic systems, economies at all scales are dynamic systems. The more you look at the world around you, the more examples you see.” [1]

System Thinking is an effort to understand how dynamic systems operate. The goal behind System Theory is to improve our decision-making processes to adapt to the dynamic attributes of complex systems.

👉 Why are our systems unable to cope with pandemics?

This is a complicated question that requires a multi-faceted answer. In this article, I’m going to answer it through the lens of System Theory.

Short answer: We’re slow at recognizing a change when is happening and slow at responding to it.

🐢 Why are we slow?

First, we need to be aware of our current mindset when approaching dynamic systems.

👉 Understanding the reductionist point of view

coronavirus reductionist point of view
Reductionist Point of View: IT’S ALL ABOUT ME!

We built the 20th century with this underlying assumption that if we improve a part, we improve the whole. That’s what capitalism is great at to encourage competition between individuals so they improve their own part and accumulate more capital.

👉 Why reductionist is a disastrous mindset?

Reductionist fails to see the relationships between actors and how these relationships form the higher purpose and outputs of the system.

This leads to short-sidedness i.e. lack of long-term thinking, and a notion that everything revolves around ME i.e. we aim at what’s in front of us because it improves our situation immediately.

coronavirus system point of view

👉 What’s a dynamic system and how does it help me to understand this pandemic?

A Dynamic system is a self-organized system that is resilient towards outside forces whose aim is to abrupt the purpose and function of the system.

The attributes of a dynamic system

1. Non-linearity of progress
The relationship between inputs and outputs are non-linear and (mostly) exponential

2. System Delay
There are delays in seeing the effect of a change

3. Feedback loops
That’s the mechanism by which a dynamic system course-corrects itself

👉 Few terms you should know to understand a dynamic system

The core elements of a dynamic system containing

A: Stock (or the reserve): Stocks can be changed only via inflows and outflows and represent the quantity of a specific point at a time

B: Flow (inflow/outflow): Flow changes the stock over time. Inflow adds to the stock; outflows subtracts from the stock. Flow is usually measured over a certain interval of time

C: Feedback loops: When the water is low, you open the valve to fill the bathtub. When it is overflowing, you close the valve. Every self-regulating system has several feedback loops by which it regulates itself

D: Threshold: Every dynamic system has a stock cap after which it could collapse

👉 So let me elaborate in the terms of Coronavirus pandemic

the bathtub analogy for the spread of coronavirus
The core elements of a dynamic system

Inflow: The infected cases rate
Stock: The number of infected cases
Outflow: The recovered cases rate
Threshold: Hospital capacity

All we need to do is to keep the infected cases (Stock) below the hospital capacity (Threshold). This looks straightforward but it’s not.

👉 Dynamic systems interact with each other all the time. The Coronavirus dynamic system is part of a bigger system, that is, the economy at large. Theoretically, we need to keep the numbers low enough so the hospitals could take care of the infected cases.

However, the more the coronavirus spreads, the longer we have to keep the economy shut down. And this leaves irreversible financial damage to many families, small businesses and the service industry at large.

🤔 Why is it hard to contain the spread of Coronavirus?

Because of a deadly combination i.e. the incubation period + ease of transmission.

In this article, I’d leave the ease of transmission aside and delve deeper into the incubation period.

👉 In each dynamic system, the effect of a change appears with a delay

There are four types of SYSTEM DELAY:

Delay from when a condition changes to when we’re aware of the change

Delay from when there’s awareness of the change to when we make a decision about the change

Delay from when we make a decision about the change to when we implement a solution

Delay from when we implement the solution to when resulted changes appear

👉 Let’s see how SYSTEM DELAY plays in favor of the Coronavirus Spread

a patient journey coronavirus

INCUBATION PERIOD: What makes it tricky to contain Coronavirus i.e. the symptoms don’t appear right away. It takes up to two weeks for the symptoms to appear.

So Coronavirus leverages the CONDITION DELAY to spread itself. And it works very well.

Coronavirus leverages greatly this attribute of the dynamic system to its advantage whereas we, humans, suffer grandly from a lack of agile decision making in response to the effects of the change.

We, humans, as actors who operate in this system, have exhibited various types of SYSTEM DELAY in response to the changes caused by Coronavirus.

We identified that there’s a viral virus way too late.

Even when we realized there’s such a viral virus, we failed to arrive together at a common ground that there’s a thread and we have to take it seriously.

Most of the countries implemented necessary actions late.


Even though we just started shutting down gatherings and basically half of the economy and encouraging people to social distancing, still it’d take a while to see the changes of these actions.

🥁 Finally, why are we slow?

I believe the reason that we’ve been slow at responding is the lack of enough education about system thinking. We do not think and operate in accordance with how dynamic complex system functions.

🙏 Thank you for being here. Please share your feedback.