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13 Mar 2020

COVID-19 information risk analysis

I'll kick off with a disclaimer: IANAV*. I have a scientific background in microbial genetics but left the field more than 3 decades ago. I have far more experience in information risk management, so what follows is my personal assessment of the information risks ('risks pertaining to information') associated with the Coronavirus pandemic.

Here's my initial draft of a Probability-Impact-Graphic showing what I see as the main information risk aspects right now, today, with a few words of explanation below:

Top left, the reported shortages of toilet rolls, facemasks, hand sanitiser and soap qualify as information incidents because they are the result of panic buying by people over-reacting to initial media coverage of shortages. The impacts are low because most people are just not that daft. 

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, however, is largely what drives those panic buyers. To an extent, I blame the media (mostly social media but also the traditional news media, desperate for their next headline) for frenziedly whipping up a storm of information. There are potentially significant personal and social consequences arising from FUD that I'll cover later.

In amongst the frenzied bad news, there are a few good things coming out of this incident. The global scientific, medical and public services communities are quietly sharing information about the virus, infections, symptoms, morbidity, treatments, contributory factors, social responses etc. There is excellent work going on to characterise the virus, understand its morphology and genetics, understand the disease progression, understand the modes of transmission etc. It's a shame this isn't as widely reported as the bad news but I think I understand why that is: scientists, generally, are reluctant to publish information they aren't reasonably sure about, and "reasonably sure" means if a reporter asks for a categorical statement of fact, most scientists will at least hesitate if not refuse. An example of this is the face mask issue: good quality face masks are designed to trap small particles but not as small as viruses. They help by impeding airborne particles and so reducing the spread of airborne viruses, but do not totally prevent them spreading, hence it would be inaccurate to claim that. The way masks are used also affects their effectiveness. In risk management terms, most controls are the same: they reduce but do not eliminate risk. The problem comes when people naively mistake a scientist's 'not totally effective' for 'ineffective', and then go on to make bad decisions and biased statements. It's much the same issue that leads to a fascinating social phenomenon known as outrage.

Another positive outcome is the flow of resources into scientific and medical research associated with virology, infectious disease, disease reduction, healthcare, public health management etc. In my own infinitesimal way, I'm investing a few brain cycles into this issue and spending a merry hour or three documenting and sharing my thoughts. It's an insignificant contribution but beats doing nothing. Allegedly.

Next comes a group of 4 risks all relating to the large volumes of information circulating right now. "Coronavirus Update" is the top search term on Google US at the momentReddit's coronavirus channel is replete with content from around the world, streaming forth like a snotty nose. Social media are overflowing with the stuff, and it's the topic of offline conversations everywhere. The information risks include:
  • Large volumes of poor or dubious quality information spreading rapidly like Chinese whispers;
  • Accidental misinformation and bad advice, spread inadvertently by naive if genuinely concerned people who misinterpret things, modify or elaborate on them, and pass them on**;
  • So much information, in fact, that it is crowding out other stuff - not literally (I'm reasonably sure the Internet and assorted media have more capacity although they too must be suffering from people falling sick, believing they have the virus, scared of interacting with work colleagues or just "pulling a sickie"), but rather diverting attention from other matters;
  • Smaller volumes of deliberately misleading information, promising miracle cures and priority access to limited resources, or opinion pieces and fake news promoting some agenda other than simply spreading factual information, exploiting the chaos to further hidden agendas.
And finally for today, there's one information risk which eclipses the others, that of the snowball effect as good, bad and ugly information about the pandemic spreads, leading people to worry and back off, reducing productivity and consumption, making investors fearful and sparking a stock market dive leading to yet another global recession. Globally, stock markets are inherently prone to overreacting to bad news. It looks, to me, like an example of a positive feedback control loop, with a curious bias to the negative. Whereas we seem to dive headlong into recessions, the journey back towards normality is a slow clamber, whereas market peaks tend to be short-lived. I rate this as a more significant risk because there are clear signs of it already happening (stock markets in freefall) and the impacts of past recessions have been widespread and dramatic (real-world social effects follow from the economics): in risk terms, that's a bad combination. The other information risks I've discussed vary in probability but, in comparison, their impacts are lower.

So, that's my information risk assessment of COVID-19 for now. What do you think? What important, relevant factors have I missed? Is there anything I have materially misreported or misinterpreted? I plan to update this assessment in due course and welcome further inputs and comments if you have anything to say - critical or constructive, I don't mind which. Perhaps next time I'll explore the threats, vulnerabilities and controls, again from the information risk perspective. But for now I have Things To Do, COVID or no COVID.


* I Am Not A Virologist

** I sincerely hope I am helping not harming by publishing this piece ... but it's up to YOU, dear reader, to consider my credentials and motivations as much as my words: read it critically and make of it what you will. And remember, IANAV. I'm also not a sociologist, medic, public policy or economics expert etc. Just an ordinary guy with a brain, a keyboard and an interest in information risk, security, metrics, resilience and all that jazz.

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