Reflecting on 2 years of COVID and the sensemaking crisis

First draft, 2022-01-31

Those old enough to remember, we know exactly where we were on September 11, 2001. It was a singular event and set off an immense chain of reactions.

For “mechanical” events like 9/11 our perception works reasonably well. An understanding on the first order follows somewhat immediately. The results of the impacts - smashed concrete, molten steel, smoke, loved ones lost.

Air pollution however we basically don’t perceive at all. In European cities like Berlin, London, or Lisbon, there are tens of thousands of people dying from air pollution every year - statistically. From a numbers perspective it’s similar but the way we perceive it is a night and day difference. No one knows anyone who lost a loved one to air pollution. And yet there are tens of thousands who statistically died that way.

In February 2020, when it became clear that COVID was going to become a pandemic, we were utterly unable to break down the complexity and make sense of what was about to happen. The uncertainty was frightening. To me it was painfully clear from the very beginning that the legacy media was going to be useless in helping understand the situation based on the available knowledge and data.

And suddenly it’s been 2 years. (And 20 years since the US pulled out of Afghanistan.)

Everyone is happy to move on, but now is the time to digest the meta-lesson that this pandemic brought:

we suck at making sense of our world

Our modern world is complex. The supply-chain issues showed how economic interconnectedness can cause all sorts of unexpected downstream effects. These are what we call second- and higher-order effects. Easy to not see those in advance. Easy to underestimate their power. And the supply chain issues are politically still outside the extreme polarization. Topics such as vaccines and masks became highly politiced from the very beginning (when the WHO said that masks don't work - because they were needed for medical workers).

COVID has been a challenge in sensemaking way beyond what we had to deal with before.