We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%. Still, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of Americans to get a booster, or even get a first vaccine dose.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in a major Omicron wave this winter.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines, which might have helped if Omicron wasn’t already detected in over half of all states. But it’s not taking the steps that would be the real game-changes.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA is not choosing to hasten the approval process.
Widespread at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, slowing the spread of Omicron. Yet the federal government has not prioritized making these tests widely available.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play: for example, Google, Uber, and Ford. Companies that have already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta.
What explains this puzzling leadership behavior? Leaders – and all of us – are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet business and political leaders denied the reality of this risk.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes leaders used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, whether in drug approval or work arrangements.
The way forward is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future. In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might adapt to our new normal. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.
About the Author
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is the CEO of the future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, and is the author of Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.