Stephen O. Ohize
This is no satire. The phrase “Wicked problem” is a technical term used in policy and planning to refer to issues that are difficult to solve. Like most terms in social sciences, it is often difficult to get everyone to agree on precisely what it means. Issues considered ‘wicked’ by some are seen as ‘not-so-wicked’ by others. However, if there was ever a situation that should bring everyone to an agreement, it would be the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wicked problems are tricky and challenging, uniquely so because just about every proposed solution comes at a high cost, with no exact best approach. If not correctly addressed, wicked problems could be made worse, leaving individuals, communities, and countries in ruins. I suppose the next question should be, “what makes the COVID-19 pandemic wicked?” The simple answer is that ‘wickedness’ lies in every solution available to us thus far. Let us start by examining the solution and the inherent danger in the approaches we choose to adopt to stop the spread of the virus.
The first strategy is generally referred to as the lockdown. This is the term used in many countries to describe the strict rules adopted to check the spread of the virus. Opinions are divided as to the efficacy of this strategy. I must state early that the debate over the effectiveness of this approach is not within the scope of this article. However, I would like to count the cost of the lockdown approach to human populations across the world.
The massive economic loss is one that has been discussed far too many times. But what is its health implication? The Sustainable Development Goal 2 canvasses ‘Zero hunger’. However, the United Nations estimated that 256 million people are now at risk of suffering from acute hunger by the end of the year 2020. This will double the estimate from 2019. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) draft strategy estimates that five million people die annually from starvation in Africa. We are now left to wonder what the forecast will be after the economic strain arising from the lockdown. It already looks far more than the expected direct deaths caused by COVID-19. Can you see the ‘wickedness’ in the wicked problem?
What is the alternative? That various countries should stay and do nothing? What government will hesitate to act, particularly in the face of the novel coronavirus? Every government should be eager to help. However, it is important to note that, regardless of how good the intentions are, failure to consider the ‘wicked’ nature of this pandemic could send more people to their graves. Any decision that as much as worsens the existing poor health indices may pose a greater danger than COVID-19.
Let us take a look at the current number of deaths caused by various infectious diseases in Nigeria. Diarrhoea kills 150,000 annually, tuberculosis 245,000, and pneumonia 162,000 (this is just in children under the age of five). What about pregnancy-related deaths and the health centres in rural areas barely surviving? Any decision that has the potential to double any of these numbers becomes “a cure worse than the disease.”
So now, how are wicked problems to be addressed? Is there a simple solution that is eluding everyone? Rittel and Webber gave a great answer in their 1973 essay, titled “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” They wrote: “There are no meaningfully correct or false responses. It makes no sense to talk about optimal solutions unless severe qualifications are first imposed. Even worse, there is no solution in the sense of definitive and objective answers.”
This is the challenge posed to humanity by wicked problems; without a definitive answer, each country is saddled with the responsibility of qualifying what success looks like before choosing its own approach.
The question must then be asked: What consequence can we live with or which solution would lead to the least collateral damage? The answer is almost always different between and within countries, hence the different approaches we see. At the time of this writing, four months following the outbreak of COVID-19 in China, just about one-third of the world’s population is on partial or total lockdown. This is evident in more than 40 countries. The other two-third and over 140 countries have chosen their approach to the challenge presented by COVID-19.
The developed world may be able to accommodate the challenge of an economic downturn as they have enough financial backup to attempt to stimulate their economy. Already, the United States plans a US$2.2 trillion relief fund. Compare that amount of money to Africa’s combined 2020 nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$2.58 trillion, Japan’s US$990 billion, and Germany’s US$800 billion. The economic effect on health is expected to be less severe in these countries.
The aim is not to compare lives to dollars but a collapsed economy leads to hunger, crime, conflict, disease, poor healthcare, and deaths. Keep in mind the initial problem is to prevent death from COVID-19. Success should be to avoid as many casualties from the virus without killing more people in the process. Therein lies the wickedness in responding to the problem.
The goal of this article is to bring to the attention of the reader awareness of the ‘wicked’ nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the grave consequences of chasing the ‘ideal’ solution without adequately considering the fallouts. It is dangerous to think about what we should do because jumping on any and every solution could indeed be worse than inaction. This could set Africa years behind the rest of the developed world. So, maybe, just maybe, national leaders who are careful and appear slow to act may have saved millions of lives.
It is easy to count the short-term gains (or losses) from COVID-19. Still, we must look critically into long-term impacts, particularly unintended consequences. I hope we should also ask: “What other wicked problems have we inadvertently worsened with our interventions?”
I leave you with the words of Professor Charles C. Soludo, renowned economist and former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. In an article titled “Can Africa afford lockdowns?” Soludo urged: “Let us think this through.”
• Dr. Ohize is a health promotion professional, Mandela Washington Fellow and Commonwealth Scholar; [email protected]