„Gradually, then suddenly“ — four concepts that may help us think clearly about the coronavirus epidemic

Exponential growth: “yesterday everything was still under control?!”

Italy went from one diagnosed case to well over 3‘000 in just over a month (34 days) with only three cases in the first 21 days. It’s safe to say that most intuitively did not expect the number of diagnosed cases to grow so quickly.

Phase changes: Everything is fine until it suddenly isn’t

Complex systems tend to have ‘tipping points’ and go through ‘phase changes’ once they reach one of those. This means that once a system reaches a certain threshold things can change rapidly.

Delayed feedback cycles: “why are things still getting worse even though we introduced all these measures?”

Imagine how hard it would be to drive a car where there was a lag of just a few seconds between you turning the steering wheel and the car doing what you want it to do. It would be phenomenally annoying.

Leverage points: (relatively) small change, (relatively) large effect

Another feature of complex systems is that there usually exist ‚leverage points‘, interventions which can create an outsized effect because of their position and influence in the system.

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