This article presents nested scenarios to handle the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our aim is to provide an organised framework to foresee the future of our world as it lives through the pandemic, while easing understanding. Such a comprehension, which brings together the past, the present and possible futures is necessary to allow for proper preparedness, innovation, planning and action.

The scenarios can be used as the basis to build more specific scenarios answering precise questions and looking at the future of particular actors, countries, geographical regions or even cities.

If scenarios are a key tool to handle uncertainty, the sheer number of unknowns we must face with the COVID-19 pandemic also presents challenges for scenarios to be actionable. To handle properly the uncertainty and cover the whole range of possible futures, we need to multiply scenarios. But then, when presented with too many scenarios, decision-makers may be at a loss to know how to use them. Ideally, they may aim at creating response strategies that are resilient and robust against all scenarios. However, that may be difficult, if not impossible. We thus need to find a way to articulate our scenarios so that they become even more useful.

The nested approach we created allows for tying things together and for navigation among a possibly long list of various scenarios. As a result, decision-makers are offered a coherent whole within which they can navigate. Furthermore, that approach handles a particularity of scenarios for pandemic: improving the account of time and timelines. Time, in pandemic, becomes a factor that needs also to be monitored, including for warning. As a result, the actionability of the set of scenarios for decision-makers is further improved.

You can find the bibliography and detailed articles related to the scenarios in our COVID19 section.

1 – Three Meta-Scenarios

Explanation

  • The 3 meta-scenarios are organised around the fundamental critical uncertainty that determines our futures and indeed, somehow, the history of human evolution and progress: 
  • Do we have any power against the new threat that is the SARS-CoV-2?
  • In other terms, is it in our power to make the SARS-CoV-2 fade away? Alternatively, will it disappear – or be reinforced – as it appeared, without our intervention?
  • As a result, and considering the necessity to cover all possible futures, we obtain three meta-scenarios:

1- “The Miracle” – a very favorable scenario where everything is solved finally without human intervention and where things can continue or rather go back to the pre-COVID-19 world.

2 – “Human Genius” – This is the meta-scenario that we shall focus and detail.

3- “Towards extinction” – The less palatable option, which is not detailed. Here, the initial COVID-19 pandemic threat could reinforce and, possibly added to other negative factors, such as climatic events, and other pandemics, finally lead to our extinction. 


“The Miracle”

Improbable

Narrative

The SARS-CoV-2 surprises us once more, but this time positively. It has suddenly disappeared. 

Scientists wonder why. They knew that, considering our lack of exhaustive knowledge on coronaviruses in general and in particular on a virus discovered only a couple of months ago, surprise could happen. 

They had pondered about the possibility that the virus could loose either its infectious power or its lethality. They did not dare to hope that it could just disappear, for reasons not well understood yet, as happened for the SARS-CoV outbreak in 2003 (1). They had also wondered if, alternatively, a strong immunity could not also develop naturally and finally very quickly among human beings.

But here we are, the miracle has happened. The SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 have disappeared. The pandemic ends. 

(1)  Yvonne CF Su et al. ‘Discovery of a 382-nt deletion during the early evolution of SARS-CoV-2”, bioRxiv 2020.03.11.987222; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.11.987222

Explanation

What is critical here is our powerlessness as human beings. The happenstance of this scenario is not in our control. Nonetheless, the factors influencing the probability of this scenario must be monitored and due warnings delivered, if warranted.

Until this miracle takes place, the dynamics and impacts are similar to those of the “human genius” scenario.

Considering current knowledge on epidemics and on coronaviruses, this scenario is improbable, in the short to medium term (between 20% and 50% – closer to 20% than to 50%), but not impossible. The factors influencing the probability of this scenario must be monitored.


“Human Genius”

Probable

Narrative

Faced with the unbearable costs that letting the pandemic run wild would create, because uncertainty forbids the hope to reach a natural immunity rapidly and without harm, human beings have no other choice than to work to show their genius. 

As they have most often done throughout the course of evolution, they rise to the challenge. They work to understand the threat and to find how to overcome it. 

They know they will need time to find out a definitive solution.

Thus, in the meantime, they find alternative ways to allow for the time necessary to find the solution against the SARS-CoV-2 threat, whatever the complexity of this solution. 

Explanation

This “meta-scenario” is both the most likely of the three meta-scenarios and also the only one upon which and within which we can act. 

Thus, it is within this meta-scenario, that our scenarios will be located. This is thus our first and largest “nested world”.


2 – Human Genius and its three Scenarios

Explanation

  • The 3  major scenarios of Human Genius are organised around the critical uncertainty regarding immunisation. Indeed, immunisation is so far the best if not only way we know to overcome infectious and deadly diseases. 
  • The key question is:
    When shall we be immunised against the SARS-CoV-2, without having to face the unbearable costs and uncertainty of hoping to reach a natural immunity?
  • This translates in three scenarios. The first two scenarios are organised according to time and around vaccines. They answer the question: When shall we have a vaccine available (i.e. discovered, manufactured and delivered to the various countries needing it)? The first scenario then forks around the question of mass vaccination.
  1. The Long awaited Christmas 2022“: This scenarios subdivides in two to consider two possible courses of action regarding competition over vaccine. The timeframe considers the needs for a worldwide immunisation (see further details, bibliography and references in different articles considering vaccines in our COVID19 section)
  2. A little bit longer
  3. A new path opens“: this scenario takes into account new potential discoveries that would allow us obtaining immunisation with something different from current vaccination or treatments. This scenario and the two focused on vaccination are not mutually exclusive. They may evolve along parallel avenues. They are shown here with the vaccine scenarios for the sake of presentation.

“The Long Awaited Christmas 2022”

Probable

Narrative – up to March 2021

Considering the SARS-CoV-2 threat, the search to discover a vaccine is unprecedented and progresses at a speed so far unequaled in human history. The number of candidate vaccines being developed went from between 15 and 20 in mid-February to 70 in mid April 2020 and continued growing to more than 130 candidates. Many of them are successfully moving through the trial stages, which have been changed and shortened to satisfy the urgency of the situation.

As a result of this enormous effort, while all insist the new way to organise the trials is safe, in March 2021 a vaccine against the COVID-19 is licensed.

Luckily, only one shot of the vaccine is necessary for immunisation of at least one year (note that some candidates vaccines seem to need two shots).

Now manufacturing must start. The herd immunity for the COVID-19 that needs to be reached considers Sanche et al. study, and is thus of 82.4% of the population. 6.35 billion doses must be manufactured, and then delivered to all the countries of the planet.


“Merry Christmas 2022”

Likely

Narrative – from March 2021 – to Winter 2022

Fortunately, production capabilities are sufficient. They are organised well ahead of time. All components necessary to produce the vaccine and inject it are available. The doses of vaccine are safely delivered to each national administration for Christmas 2022. 

The mass vaccination campaign can start.

Explanation

This scenario then sub-divides into two main scenarios according to the willingness of people to accept the vaccine.


“A most precious Christmas present”

Improbable

Narrative – Starting Winter 2022

The mass vaccination campaign, although complex, has been well prepared ahead of time. It proceeds at a speedy pace throughout the world.

Because of the very early planning, in a record time herd immunity is reached, for now.

The world succeeds in overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, for the time being.

Explanation

This scenario should be used as the basis for the creation of a new set of scenario allowing for handling all the uncertainties linked to immunisation. It should also be used to plan ahead the mass vaccination campaign.


“A failed Christmas”

Likely

Narrative – Starting Winter 2022

The efforts and successes of vaccines labs and manufacturers has been daily hailed throughout the period leading to the mass immunisation in the media, notably financial ones. The speed with which the vaccines has been developed has been continuously highlighted. Each new announcement of success was followed by rises on the stock exchange.

However, meanwhile, the impact on the general public has been neglected. What many understand, rightly or wrongly, is that the typical process of trials has not been safely followed. Conspiracy theories have started to abound regarding a real hidden aim of manufacturers to seek ever more profit.

Meanwhile, the very novelty of some vaccines has hardly been explained to the population at large.

As, since the beginning of the pandemic, people throughout the globe have witnessed the uncertainty of science and quarrels linked to ego and career rather than to a real appetite for understanding, trust in science has diminished.

Meanwhile, many political authorities have, also lost part of their legitimacy.

As a result, added to the previously already growing distrust of vaccines, many refuse vaccination. Too many to allow for herd immunity.

After months of inadequate efforts to entice the population in being vaccinated that were too little and too late, less than 50% of the population in many countries accepts the vaccine.

The pandemic is there to last.

Explanation

The likelihood to see this second, unfavourable, scenario taking place will depend upon the the way the period leading to the start of mass immunisation.

The way political authorities in each country and internationally will handle the pandemic is critical.

The scientific community, the media, vaccine manufacturers as well as financial players will also play a very important role.


“Free-for-all”

Likely

Narrative – from March 2021 – to Winter 2022

Governments and pharmaceutical companies could not foresee early enough the way to manufacture the doses needed for the whole world.

Many factors foster tension and bitter competition between governments as each want to make sure they will be able to immunise their own population.

The whole world has to face many drivers of instability and tension: the dire impacts of the pandemic, including economically, the period of transition into which the international system stands, the tensions for supremacy notably between the U.S. and China, the refusal by other powers to become subservient to the too mega-powers considering the risks they just lived in terms of survival, Erdogan and Turkey’s attempt at taking advantage of the international situation to create a new sphere of influence in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, etc.

How hight can tension run? Can we now have to face a war? 

Explanation

A “war”scenario is one possibile scenario to follow from the “free for all” scenario but will not be developed here.

A crucial factor that will make the tension more likely is the capability of governments to move towards collaboration or conflict between the start of the pandemic and the date of discovery of a vaccine.

By June 2020, the U.S. international attitude regarding face masks, vaccines and treatments would tend to increase the likelihood to see tension rising rather than collaboration. On the contrary, successful efforts of other countries to adopt a collaborative approach would lower the likelihood to see conflict settling in.

Further specific scenarios would need to be built to precisely account for these cases.


“A little bit longer…”

Improbable

Narrative

The scientific community has made tremendous efforts to discover a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2.

Yet, with time, one after the other candidate fails, at one stage or another of the process.

We are now past March 2021, and new vaccine candidates continue being developed. One has to succeed… one day. 

Covid-19, scenario, Antiviral Treatment, monitoring

Explanation

This scenario will become active only if the previous one fails (all candidate vaccines fail).

It is thus an alternative scenario that would be triggered around March 2021 if the trials have failed. 


“A new path opens”

Probability: Unknown

Narrative

Scientists explore new paths towards understanding better the SARS-CoV-2, notably, but not only, in the field of genetics, phylogenetics, evolutionary epidemiology, genomics, genomics epidemiology, etc.

New findings open completely new avenues of thoughts to handle diseases and viral infections.

A new way to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is now possible.

Explanation

This scenario may be a completely unexpected way to fight the COVID-19. 

Its complete novelty, however, forbids estimation of probability or timeframe.

It is nonetheless important to keep it in mind as research in these areas must continue and as it may constitute a revolutionary way out of the pandemic.


3 – Easing the pain

Explanation

  • The next layer of critical uncertainty is focused on the search for antiviral prophylaxis and treatment. 
  • As soon as a treatment exists and is fully efficient, whatever the stage of the illness – preventing the development of the disease as well as death – and as soon as it is widely available, then the pandemic will end.
  • Even more so than with the previous layer, considering the number of ongoing clinical trials, monitoring must be ongoing.
  • As long as we have not found a completely ideal treatment, even if partly efficient treatments exist, we shall remain in a scenario where we have to live with the COVID-19 pandemic. This scenario sub-divides as follows:

1- ““The ideal medicine chest” – The first type of treatment may result from known drugs. In that case, as for the vaccine, the discovery may lead to either collaboration or tension. It is impossible to give a date as many trials are ongoing.

2 – “See you in 15 years…” – If the trials of all the known medicines fail, then one must hope to find a completely new treatment. Then, the minimal amount of time to safely develop a new drug is 15 years. In that case, the hope and timeline of the vaccine will take precedence. Vaccines will then become even more important.

3- “The Age of Reckoning” – In this scenario, we look at the way we live with the COVID-19 pandemic, because no full treatment has yet been discovered. The possible treatments found in this scenario may alleviate pain and reduce fatality, but not in a way that would impact the dynamics of the pandemic. It is the scenario we shall further develop.
This last scenario also takes place as the previous two are ongoing. Thus, they are not mutually exclusive along the whole timeline, but presented as such for the sake of convenience.


The Age of Reckoning

Almost Certain

Narrative

We live with the SARS-CoV2, this virus that triggered the start of the COVID-19 epidemic in China, probably sometime during the year 2019.

The disease is highly contagious, we do not have a treatment, we do not have a vaccine, we still know little about this coronavirus and the disease it entails.

scenario, covid-19, pandemic, epidemic

Explanation

This scenario is organised according to the way major actors want to see the socio-political system adapt and change. Do they truly consider the COVID-19? Do they want to make sure that safety for all citizens comes first? Or do they want to go back to the pre-COVID-19 world?

Some of the major critical factors which are furthermore involved are the way the disease itself evolves, the dynamics of the pandemic, and how political authorities handle the pandemic and manage, or not, to ensure security on all fronts. As a result legitimacy becomes foremost. Indeed, legitimacy can be reinforced – in the case of rather successful actions – or, on the contrary, weakened – in the case of suboptimal governance. The quality of legitimacy will then hinder or favour the actions of political authorities.

Then, the actions of elite groups are also considered as fundamental.

The scenarios are organised in three periods: the shock, denial and fundamental change (forthcoming).


“The shock”

Certain – Past

Narrative

We remember when we started to understand we had to face a new disease. Strangely enough, it feels like it was both ages ago and yesterday.

The pandemic developed first in China then in South Korea and Singapore.

With hindsight, the rest of the world showed a complete disbelief and inability to even think we could have to face a global pandemic. Then it hit us. Not only were we all rather unprepared, with the exception mainly of the two first hist countries, but we also probably went into shock. This just could not be true, it was not true. A real pandemic was impossible in the 21st century.

As countries were hit and finally had to witness exponentially rising numbers of infections and hospitalisations, as they were suddenly faced with the possibility to see their health system exploding, as the ghost of past pandemics such as the Black Death settled, political authorities reacted in various ways. Their actions were function of two priorities: saving life while also preserving livelihoods. And their actions met with varying success along these two axes.

Globally, lives were saved by millions for the time-being, even though half a million died in what was dubbed the first wave. Meanwhile, the economic toll was terrible.

Explanation

This past period is crucial in then determining the trajectory of countries, as well as the way they will be able to relate to each other. Groups of countries according to their actions and performance along the two main axes, health safety and all other types of security can be created.


“Denial”

Almost Certain

Narrative

The first shock is now past. Thanks to a very active scientific community, we have started gathering knowledge on this virus and its disease, even though many unknowns remain.

Some countries are still handling a first wave, while others have started meeting a rebound. Some have not yet truly started their first wave, as they benefited from the decisions and actions from others. All other countries who managed to more or less control the pandemic are on the razor’s edge.

As a result from their position on the pandemic timeline and on the way they handled this period, political authorities, the scientific communities and, in general, elite groups have seen their legitimacy being reinforced – few countries – or weakened – many countries.

Those countries where the legitimacy of political authorities has fallen and continues to do so have become everyday more difficult to govern.

Yet, this goes unnoticed.

Throughout the world, the master objective is to come back to the world ante, to the world that existed before the COVID-19, despite claims to the contrary.

Measures are taken when the COVID-19 forces them, but they are still piecemeal measures. They are created within the mindset of the old past world. They are designed to allow us to go back to the past.

The system and elite groups benefitting from that system are very vocal and they benefit from power and resources accumulated over the last decades. Yet, this power and these resources may not be as solid as they think. Part of this might is only as strong as the system to which it relates.

Other voices warn that something different must be created, that the pandemic is not over yet, that even the countries most successful in controlling the pandemic are on the razor’s edge.

These voices suggest that the COVID-19 could be turned into an opportunity to create a novel system better adapted to the 21st century and the many challenges it must face, from climate change to new technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum information sciences, nano-technologies etc.

Explanation

Seen from the Summer 2020, this is the current period.

This sub-scenario is subdivided into three typical scenarios and their archetypal actors’ groups: Towards a Pre-COVID-19 World 3.0 and the Hamartians, Muddling through and the Muddlers, Fortitude and the Changers.


“Towards a Pre-COVID-19 World 3.0”
The Hamartians

Likelihood to assess according to countries

Narrative

As few as possible measures are taken to control the COVID-19. Furthermore they are as superficial as possible.

Hubris and the past govern political authorities and societies.

The system and elite groups benefitting from the pre-COVID-19 system are stronger than all other voices suggesting otherwise or differently.

To be continued…


“Muddling through”
The Muddlers

Likelihood to assess according to countries

Narrative

Many measures, on all front, are taken but they are chaotic and do not show any real reflection, any innovation nor any coherence.

Political authorities and elite groups think they want to control the pandemic at best while also learning to live with the COVID-19. Yet, they are still prisoners of the past, of their old mindset and of old structures and interest groups.

Citizens alike are divided. Some of them think anew, while others want to resist change.

Some groups start exhibiting extreme ways and cathartic collective behaviour, thus acting out the deep malaise and fear of societies without proper legitimate and adequate governance.

The system and many elite groups benefitting from the pre-COVID-19 system remain short-sighted and insisting on their old privileges, whatever the price they will make others bear.

Yet, some new elite groups, including some from the old elite, are also starting to develop a new awareness and understanding of the situation. They start thinking that something different could be done.

To be continued…


“Fortitude”
The Changers

Likelihood to assess according to countries

Narrative

Many measures, on all fronts, are taken. Much thought is given to the pandemic and new knowledge is favoured and considered.

Political authorities and elite groups know they are far from knowing everything and that the situation is both terribly challenging and completely novel. They know it is extremely difficult to both try to control the pandemic while ensuring all types of security.

They are very cautious in progressing, yet very strong in implementing measures.

They succeed in mobilising their citizens to face this new challenge and to try creating a new system better adapted to the reality of the 21st century.

To be continued…

Credits images

Featured image: PIRO4D – Pixabay
Miracle: Fathromi Ramdlon – Pixabay  
New Path: Manfred Antranias Zimmer – Pixabay 

About the author: Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues. Her current focus is on Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Science, and Security. She teaches at Master level at SciencesPo-PSIA.

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