Mapping COVID-19 as a Wicked Problem


One way to map a wicked problem is to begin with a process of discovery. Begin with the current, observable facts and ask “why?” – going backwards in time to create a chain of causality. Remember, each cause is also an effect.

To predict what will happen going forward in time, ask “what next?”

By asking what next and continuing the chain, we get a set of future consequences – the “domino effect” of our present actions.

Which countries are doing best in their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic? Which ones are doing badly?

To find out, let’s visit, and take a look at the data. There are three levels of performance:

What can we learn from the worst cases?

What can we learn from the best?

By reading the news archives, we find the countries that are doing the best are the ones, like New Zealand, Taiwan, and Germany, which have a properly funded health system, technological edge, decisive leadership, and a strong commitment to building public trust. Many of them, as Avivah Wittenberg-Cox points out, have women leaders. They acted swiftly and decisively, with testing and contact tracing protocols across the entire country.

By contrast, some of the worst countries were plagued by delay, absence of public trust, misinformation, and incoherent prevention and mitigation protocols. Male authoritarian political figures like Bolsonaro, Trump, and Putin all fared badly. Weak and fragmented public-health infrastructure also played a role. Most sought to blame others and external factors – like China – for their ineptitude.

China also has its share of blame – for its absence of transparency and its crackdown on whistleblowers.

Thus, we see two divergent maps emerging – one – the “cycle of failure” and the its opposite, the “cycle of success” (h/t Leonard Schlesinger + James Heskett).

For this project, we called them a wicked cycle and the virtuous cycle:

It is this type of visualization – the wicked and virtuous maps – that we believe will help inform our quest for solving wicked problems.

Does this make sense? Stay tuned.