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covid19

 A woman is getting a Covid-19 test at a Covid-19 mobile testing site at the Times Square in New York City, United States on Dec 6, 2021. President Joe Biden declared the U.S. to be on the verge of defeating Covid-19 as the Omicron variant was spreading rapidly from state to state. (Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Omicron Reveals How Leaders Stick Their Heads Into the Sand of Reality

Covid-19 will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.

Gleb Tsipursky

Leaders are sticking their heads into the sand of reality on Omicron. Unless they take needed steps, the results may be catastrophic.

Omicron is 4.2 times more infectious than Delta, according to a recent study. That aligns with other estimates of 3-6 times greater infectivity.

It should be absolutely unacceptable that thousands of people are dying due to a months-long FDA approval process when the FDA's officials approved stopping Paxlovid's trial early.

33% protection from infection: that's the effectiveness of the Pfizer two-shot vaccine against Omicron. That means Omicron is much more capable of escaping vaccines and natural immunity. Similarly worrisome results emerge from studies of Moderna and J&J.

A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%. Still, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of Americans to get a booster, or even get a first vaccine dose.

Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of meaningful leadership action.

The Wave Is Coming

Scientists strongly believe that a major winter wave of Omicron is coming in the US. That's because of other countries where Omicron is spreading.

Our genomic sequencing is much worse than other countries with similar cultures and climates, such as the UK. It's detecting a doubling of Omicron cases every couple of days. The UK health authority called Omicron the "most significant threat" since the pandemic began. The country already had someone die with Omicron.

Or consider Denmark, which has hit its highest case load of the pandemic due to Omicron. Norway also has a very high COVID case growth rate for the same reason.

The only silver lining is that Omicron, so far, appears to cause a milder illness than Delta. Yet the World Health Organization has warned about the "mildness" narrative. It noted that the unvaccinated—or those vaccinated who are older or have underlying health conditions and don't have a booster—are still at risk for severe disease and death.

Lack of Meaningful Action

The much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That's why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, including in the US, as the Center for Disease Control warned.

Because of this danger, Denmark and Norway recently announced stricter COVID measures. So did the UK.

Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action in the US. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines, which might have helped if Omicron wasn't already detected in over half of all states. It's exploring the possibility of Omicron-specific boosters, which would take at least three months to be approved, long after the Omicron wave sweeps over the US.

But it's not taking the steps that would be the real game-changes.

Pfizer's anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA is not choosing to hasten the approval process.

Widely-available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly and effectively. Doing so would prevent those with mild symptoms from infecting others. Yet the federal government has not made these tests available to patients. Its best effort is to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is a nearly-meaningless gesture, as this creates way too many barriers.

We see even more problematic behavior at the state level. For example, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, declared "the end of the medical emergency" in a recent interview, despite the rise of Omicron.

Similarly, most companies are not pivoting effectively to meet Omicron.

Some are bringing out the tired old "delay the office reopening" play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements.

You probably heard the quote "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts like myself, companies are repeating the same mistakes of failing to re-envision the future of work. That's despite numerous employees quitting because of the compulsive plans of their employers to get them back to the office as part of the Great Resignation.

Mental Blindspots Obscuring Leadership Vision

What explains this puzzling leadership behavior? Leaders—and all of us—are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.

One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet the leadership at trillion-dollar companies—and the federal government—denied the reality of this risk.

We want the future to be normal. We're tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.

When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes leaders used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, whether in drug approval or work arrangements.

Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of returning to the office over the competitive advantage of preparing for the long-term hybrid and remote future of work. Another one is failing to appreciate the long-term benefits of at-home quick testing to ameliorate the coming Omicron surge.

Conclusion

The way forward into the future of work is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.

For companies, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, adopt a team-led approach, where each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team determines what works best for their team. Integrate best practices for innovation, collaboration, and accountability for hybrid and remote teams, such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming.

For governments, re-envision the kind of red tape involved in approval processes during emergency conditions and the kind of funding available for public health. It should be absolutely unacceptable that thousands of people are dying due to a months-long FDA approval process when the FDA's officials approved stopping Paxlovid's trial early. It should be absolutely unacceptable that people are spreading COVID to others because the government refuses to facilitate easy access to at-home COVID tests. And it should be absolutely unacceptable for high-level government officials to model the terrible message that COVID is over as a medical emergency.

In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky

An internationally-renowned risk management expert who highlighted the threat of the pandemic in its early stages, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a behavioral scientist, CEO of the consulting and training firm Disaster Avoidance Experts, and best-selling author of Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

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