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Wicked or Tame? The Duality of COVID-19

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sombo M. Chunda
September 24, 2020

Introduction

As of September 18, 2020, there were more than 30 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and close to one million deaths around the world. COVID-19 is a global problem. Problems are not simply the conditions or external events themselves; there is also a perceptual, interpretive element. Rittel and Webber made a distinction between two types or classes of problems: “Wicked problems,” and “Tame problems.” It is important to note that Rittel and Webber chose the term wicked not to connote problems as ethically deplorable or in any way reflective of the character, ethics or values of the community in which a problem surfaces. Rather, they used the term wicked to characterize a problem that is illusive or difficult to pin down and influenced by a constellation of complex social and political factors, some of which change during the process of solving the problem. Tame problems are scientific problems and they can be solved. Ten properties are used to distinguish wicked and tame problems. In this article, I use the ten properties to highlight aspects of COVID-19 with a view to understanding whether the pandemic is a wicked or tame problem. In highlighting the ten properties as they relate to COVID-19, I denote wicked with letter ‘W’ and tame with letter ‘T’.

Properties of Wicked and Tame Problems, and COVID-19

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. For any given tame problem, an exhaustive formulation can be stated containing all the information the problem solver needs for understanding and solving the problem—provided he knows his, “Art of course.” COVID-19 is a pneumonia (T). The cause of COVID-19 was not known in the beginning and the virus that causes the disease is thought to spread mainly from person to person, mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks (W).
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. In tame problems, there are criteria that will tell when the solutions have been found. A vaccine is under development (T). Public health experts have advised a number of solutions including frequent handwashing, social distancing and wearing masks (W).
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. The solutions to tame problems can be independently checked by other qualified persons using conventionalized criteria for objectively deciding whether the offered solution is correct or false. The solution to COVID-19 is a vaccine (T). The partial or mandatory shutdowns implemented to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 affect different parts of the world differently (W).
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. For tame problems, one can determine on the spot how good a solution-attempt has been. The COVID-19 vaccine trial was halted after an illness in a study subject (T). Various remedies are in use to treat COVID-19 including chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine, dexamethasone, remdesivir, lopinavir/ritonavir and umifenovir among others (W).
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-slot-operation” because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, so every attempt counts significantly. In tame problems, the problem-solver can try various runs without penalty, and whatever the outcome on the individual experimental runs, it doesn’t matter much to the subject-system or to the course of societal affairs. The vaccine trial that was halted on account of a study subject contracting another disease was restarted after a determination of the situation and approval to commence (T). There have been mixed messages on whether certain remedies used to treat COVID-19 were effective because of issues relating to sample size of those treated among other concerns (W).
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. In tame problems, there is a finite set of rules, accounting for all situations that can occur. Scientist have used models to predict with certainty the likely outcomes for some geographical jurisdictions (T). Some predictions of likely outcomes in other geographical locations have not turned out as modeled, and other explanations are being sought to understand the discrepancy (W).
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Tame problems have rules for classifying them—whenever a certain, quite-well-specified set of characteristics matches the problem. COVID-19 is caused by a strain of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) (T). When COVID-19 was first reported to the world health organization (WHO) China country office, it was described as of unknown causes (W).
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. Tame problems exist on their own even if they could have their origin elsewhere. COVID-19 is a disease with a number of symptoms that present in its diagnosis (T). COVID-19 is said to have likely began in an open food market also known as a “wet market” with hygiene concerns in China (W).
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways and the choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution. Tame problems have a clear way of dealing with evidence where given certain conditions, and assuming the validity of a hypothesis, an effect must occur. COVID-19 is caused by infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) (T). People with certain conditions have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 (W).
  10. In wicked problems, the planner has no right to be wrong. For tame problems, the scientific community does not blame its members for postulating hypothesis that are later refuted—so long as the author abides by the rules of the game. More than 150 COVID-19 vaccines are in development across the world. (T). A safe vaccine is a must for the world because unsafe vaccines could lead to unintended consequences (W).

Conclusion

COVID-19 is a complex tame problem. Its complexity emanates from the intersection of scientific conditions, and political, economic and social influences thereby manifesting as both a wicked and tame problem. Tackling a complex tame problem like COVID-19 requires transdisciplinary imagination and transnational collaboration.


Author: Sombo M. Chunda is a Ph.D. student in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Prior to graduate school, Sombo worked as country manager in Zambia for the Swedish international development organization, Diakonia. She is 2019 recipient of the Walter W. Mode Scholarship from ASPA. [email protected]; twitter @ChundaSombo

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