Proverbs 2: 3 -4

“Cry out for insight and understanding. Search for them as you would for lost money or hidden treasure”

In the previous blog I shared a few of the emotions I’ve encountered during Lockdown.  It was a helpful way of processing these tumultuous feelings. Today I would like to share a few lessons I learned while watching a News 24 Frontline interview with Professor Salim Abdool Karim a few days ago. Lessons that I hope you will also find helpful as we prepare for life after Lockdown.  

Prof Karim is an accomplished scientist and infectious disease epidemiologist and the chairperson of the 45-member Ministerial Advisory Committee on the appropriate medical response to COVID-19.  This committee advises the Covid Command Council including the Health Minister and President, on the health issues related to the global pandemic. That’s quite a mouthful, yet I was struck by the professor’s humility and the clarity of thought which defined this interview.  Prof Karim’s explanations of difficult concepts were unpretentious and accessible, one never got the impression he was trying to impress.

As the interviewer engaged with the professor, it dawned on me that this interview provided much more than an inside view on the experts’ thought processes as they advise our government on an appropriate strategy during this crisis.  

It became clear that Prof Karim was sharing shrewd life lessons, gleaned over a lifetime of experiences. Lessons that we could all benefit from as we navigate these extraordinary times.

Nobody is perfect

He explained that the context within which the committee has to do its job is largely one of “ignorance” – there is no existing body of scientific evidence directly related to this disease on which to base an informed response plan.  That plan is being designed on the fly. The committee’s job is to give the best advice based on the limited body of scientific information available.

With this in mind, Prof Karim cautioned Health Minister Mkhize that “We should expect to make mistakes…we are human… And we will learn from those mistakes”. His next comment struck me: “How are  we able to minimise those mistakes so that they are mostly small ones and so we don’t mess up big time?” 

My take-away: Once we accept that “to err is human”, we will be able to learn from our mistakes and work towards minimising the consequences thereof. 

Drown out the noise

When asked about the impact of the lockdown on the spread of the virus and plotting the exponential curve of this statistic, the professor pointed out that the day-to-day stats of recorded new cases could be confusing for a number of reasons.  The variables from one day to the next create too much background noise, he said. 

In interpreting the numbers, there are a variety of statistical tools available.  When deciding on the appropriate tool to use, he said it was important to know exactly what they wanted to measure and in this case the committee decided to measure community transmission, since the purpose of the lockdown is to stem the tide of community transmission.  

Once they made this decision, all other stats became less relevant and the door-to-door screening/testing in specific communities became the preferred measure.

My take-away: Decide what you really want/are working towards and focus on what is essential to achieve this. 

Know what tools you have available

The committee’s decision to use a specific measurement tool assumes their knowledge of the range of statistical instruments available. It also presupposes knowledge of the role of each tool – an important factor when considering which tool to use in a particular context. The relevant question is not: Can I use this tool because chances are, you can.  Rather the question is: Is this tool sufficiently and scientifically appropriate for the context?

My take-away: Know what is in your tool kit and understand the context in which to use specific tools. 

Understand your role and carefully consider your Circle of Influence

The professor was very clear about the Ministerial Advisory Committee’s role in fighting the effects of the virus.  Not once did he suggest that they know everything there is to know about the impact of the virus and he appeared comfortable with admitting to the “limitations  in their knowledge set. Their role is to advise on a specific aspect of the crisis, and beyond that, there are other experts to consult.

This particular learning reminded me of our blog series on Boundaries, but in addition I reflected on another concept we’ve introduced to our mentees: Your Circle of Influence

This concept requires an individual to consider what lies within their control and what does not. This is an important consideration in situations which feel overwhelmingly out of our control. When we isolate our circle of control, we can focus on what actions lie within the boundaries of our responsibility – a crucial skill when operating in times of crisis.  It also provides a sense of agency when we realise that even  during unpredictable times, there are things that are in our control. Knowing what these are, will impact our ability to discharge our responsibilities.

My take-away: Know what lies within your circle of control and do something about that.  Make peace with what you can’t control – there’s nothing you can do about that anyway.

It is important to note that the interview contained much more information about the science behind the Advisory Committee’s recommendations which I have not mentioned in this post. I mention merely those learnings with general application and hope that you will find this useful.

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