Simplicity, Clarity and Minimalism: Social health during COVID-19

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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These are tremendously difficult and complex times. COVID-19 is obviously first and foremost a physical health crisis, but it is another kind, too: a social health crisis. Humans are above all a social species, and the very way in which we can connect to each other has now been hindered and hampered. Ordinary life is largely on lockdown. Similar network effects, which are propelling COVID-19 around the world, are at work in the way we are transmitting everything from news to love: that’s why the very definition of an infectious disease is its ability to spread from person to person.

Social health is the connective tissue of a society and if it is dysfunctional, this is as serious as any physical or mental health crisis: indeed the term “social wellbeing” features within the original World Health Organisation definition of health, unchanged since 1948. There are three core components to good social health, which are (i) Knowledge, (ii) Networks and (iii) Time: a harnessing of what I call the K.N.O.T. When our knowledge is shared with who we know in a timely manner, you get optimal outcomes (social health). When there is a time lag in information reaching the right place, or when networks stall in their delivery of logistics, crucial time is lost.

Digital Vampires: Bolstering mental health during social isolation by Jean TwengeProfessor of Psychology, San Diego State University

Digital Vampires: Bolstering mental health during social isolation by Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology, San Diego State University

In some cases, we can see where errors in social health have affected the response times in calls for lockdown and the frantic catch-up as a result. We can see, too, the tremendous social challenges of asking citizens to comply with their own quarantine and social distancing, something that Cornell Professor of Management and Economics Robert H. Frank says requires not so much “nudge” incentives or regulation but behavioural contagion.

"Staying apart to stay healthy": Read the OECD's key impacts report on Covid-19 Containment and Mitigation Policies

"Staying apart to stay healthy": Read the OECD's key impacts report on Covid-19 Containment and Mitigation Policies

The good news is that some of the key strategic thinkers are building social health into their strategy. Take Dr David Nabarro, Special Envoy to the World Health Organisation on COVID-19, and Co-Director of the Imperial College Institute of Global Health Innovation at The Imperial College London. He co-wrote a paper on 9 April 2020 entitled Routes out of Lockdown, in which he refers to the complexity of the situation as “Managing the Messiness” noting that, “Judgements will need to be made rapidly and many will have unforeseen consequences. The strategy will need to be highly adaptive and rapidly responsive to what is actually happening”. For an expert such as Dr Nabarro, simplicity is a sophisticated weapon in the armoury against a complex target, because it can be used to focus ruthlessly on the essential priorities as a way of mitigating the “messy” chaos. He distils the actions into just three priority areas: Information, Transparency and Solidarity.

An imperative to prioritise simplicity over complexity is at the core of social health. Developing and delivering the most frictionless path to success, in the face of a virus that itself is deeply complex, will mean the difference between global death levels on a par with the pandemics of previous centuries and a different, ultimately less catastrophic outcome in terms of lives lost.

Until a vaccine is found I recommend keeping as much simplicity and clarity as possible in the face of the Coronavirus and, as Dr Nabarro recommends, in keeping the public and policymakers as aligned as possible.

Therefore, until a vaccine is found I recommend keeping as much simplicity and clarity as possible in the face of the Coronavirus and, as Dr Nabarro recommends, in keeping the public and policymakers as aligned as possible. Let me offer three practical thoughts for the coming weeks and months, inspired by the famous design principle K.I.S.S (standing for “Keep It Simple, Stupid”, although I prefer the softer version used by the late great Maya Angelou: “Keep It Simple, Sweetie”). American aerospace engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson oversaw production of planes at the famous Lockheed Skunk Works during World War II, which were make-or-break not just for their pilots, but their country. He knew what a life-saving shortcut the principle of keeping things simple and focused was.

1. KEEP IT SIMPLE

The K.I.S.S Principle can be seen in the health messages “Stay At Home”, “Protect the NHS” and “Save Lives” in the United Kingdom where I live. Look for the least complicated “route to market” of your policy. When someone says, “It’s complicated” ask them, “What’s the simple solution?”

2. CLARITY

Although messiness and complexity go with the territory at the best of times, there always has to be clarity of thought and communication. No one should leave the Zoom room anytime before they are clear on the next stage of priority. If there is muddle, there is discord. If there is discord, there is likely to be delay.

3. INFOBESITY

Recognise that infobesity – the excess of information swirling around, mixing the fact with the rumour, the substantial with the unsubstantiated – is deeply harmful. Triage the information flows coming in and going out of every part of your organisation. Keep to a minimum, not a maximum, using mediums which reach the people you need to reach as directly as possible.

It is in simplicity that we will find some sort of salve, some kind of security as this crisis rages on. In simplicity and in social health.

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Julia Hobsbawm

Writer, Editorial Intelligence

Julia Hobsbawm is Honorary Visiting Professor in Social Health at Cass Business School, City, University of London and the author of The Simplicity Principle: Six Steps Towards Clarity in a Complex World.

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