COVID-19 – Know your numbers

Appeared in IRMSA Risk Chat and written by Walter Ehrlich, IRMSA Risk Intelligence Committee Member

COVID-19 is a numbers game and only a strategic response can alter the numbers. That is true for the country and for your organisation. If your only focus regarding COVID-19 is to look at operational crisis management you need to rethink your approach. The war against COVID-19 must be fought by understanding the numbers and responding to them strategically.
If your organisation does not yet have an infection, based on probability, it is only a matter of time before your first employee is infected with COVID-19. How you respond to that event operationally is important. However, how you respond to the day-to-day growth in the transmission rate, that will inevitably follow, is of greater strategic importance. This is the battlefield on which your organisation will win or lose the war against COVID-19. Your organisation must establish upfront trigger points and actions that will come into effect immediately upon the trigger point (a pre-set number) being reached. At that stage hours will become critical and you certainly won’t have the luxury of time to deliberate and write long motivations to leadership.
Exponential Growth
The phrase is familiar to us but do we recognise what it means? As risk managers we must understand what exponential growth is, where it comes from, what it implies, and when it stops? Only then can we advise our organisations on how to respond to COVID-19 strategically.
Trust me, I am neither a scientist nor a mathematician but I have made a point of gaining a layman’s understanding of the topic which I want to share with you.
The exponential growth equation looks like this:
If the above equation puts your brain into meltdown, relax! Read on.
The following resources are useful to gain an understanding on the topic of exponential growth:
  1. The problem explained 1
  2. The problem explained 2
  3. The solution
  4. An opinion
The essentials you need to know are that:
  • Exponential growth is a fact; it is not open to interpretation, preference, or politics. It is simply a fact.
  • Exponential growth is multiplying by a factor greater than 1.
  • The only way to stop exponential growth is to bring down E or p.
  • An exponential curve cannot continue forever (it is limited by the size of the population) and therefore any exponential curve is really the beginning of a logistic curve.
  • The inflection point is where an exponential curve starts to turn downwards and starts becoming a logistic curve.
  • During an epidemic the growth factor should be closely followed. It is the ratio of the number of new cases one day compared to the number of new cases the previous day. I have no doubt the NATJOC led by President Ramaphosa and all the other clever folk are following this.
  • Your organisation would be wise to track the national and regional rate of growth and prepare to track you organisation’s own growth factor once infection within your organisation commences. And it will, probability tells you so, so bank on it and move forward.
  • The rate of infection must be slowed down to mitigate against the healthcare system becoming overwhelmed. The effect of reducing the rate of infection growth is to “flatten the curve” and spread the number of cases entering the healthcare system over a longer period of time.
What should your organisation do, or continue doing, to reduce the rate of infection and bring the inflection point forward?
  1. Stringently follow hand washing and sanitising discipline.
  2. Stringently follow regular wiping down of common equipment and common touch points.
  3. If applicable, equip true frontline staff with the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) according to WHO guidelines. Don’t panic buy PPE if you don’t need it; leave supplies for those who do.
  4. Encourage employees to stop non-essential gathering and traveling in their personal capacity.
  5. Implement a social distancing strategy, including a work from home strategy.
  6. Communicate to your staff continually, strategically and with the necessary empathy.
In conclusion, we must not panic but we must gain an understanding of these numbers and use them to inform responsible risk-based decision making. We need to make difficult decisions to make a positive contribution to bring the national, and in time your own, inflection point forward, even if it impacts on your business objectives. There is no question that there are downsides to implementing certain strategies and every organisation, public and private, is grappling to strike a balance between fighting COVID-19, protecting employees, and running an effective organisation. We cannot expect government to solve the problem on its own. Every organisation, public or private, including your organisation must take strategic action to slow down the risk of transmission.