By: Dave Poole and Christina Baker

When the term “pandemic” is mentioned, it garners various responses and impressions, depending on who you are. Obviously within the context of COVID-19, the word “pandemic” takes on a whole other meaning. But therein lies the crux – when you have conversations about risk, it takes on different meanings depending on who you are. That’s because risk is largely driven by perception and one’s past and present experiences that shape how you perceive and deal with uncertainties when making future decisions.

Fundamentally, when you weigh the factors associated with risk when making decisions, it comes down to two fundamental questions (but obviously there are many layers of more questions embedded within these two):

  1. How likely is “it” to occur (likelihood)?
  2. How bad can “it” get if “it” were to occur (impact)?

For a pandemic like COVID-19, what do you draw upon to make informed decisions to develop measures that appropriately balance risk and opportunities?

This got us thinking about how these macro-scale risks are viewed, which led us to look into current and past global risk reports published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), specifically the 2020, 2018 and 2016 editions. It was an interesting exercise and we wanted to share some of our impressions within this article.

The WEF Global Risk Reports identify the top 10 risks in terms of both “Likelihood” and “Impact”. When you prioritize the top 10 risks based on pairing up “Likelihood” and “Impact”, the following risks are identified (in no particular order) for 2020, 2018 and 2016:

2020 WEF Global Risk Report2018 WEF Global Risk Report2016 WEF Global Risk Report
Extreme Weather
Climate Action Failure
Natural Disaster
Biodiversity Loss
Human-made environmental disaster
Cyberattacks
Water Crisis
Global Governance Failure

“Infectious diseases” was ranked 10th in terms of impact but did not make the top 10 in terms of likelihood
Extreme Weather
Natural Disaster
Cyberattacks
Climate Action failure
Large-scale Involuntary Migration






“Infectious diseases” was ranked 10th in terms of impact but did not make the top 10 in terms of likelihood
Large-scale Involuntary Migration
Climate Action Failure
Water Crises       








“Infectious diseases” was ranked 8th in terms of impact but did not make the top 10 in terms of likelihood

When we looked at the overall likelihood and impact scores for “infectious diseases” in the 2018 and 2020 WEF reports, it was perceived to be less likely to occur in 2020 when compared to 2018, but was expected to be more impactful in 2020 when compared to 2018. From a risk management perspective, the general view is that you tend to put a priority on preparedness measures ready to deploy when the event manifests itself for higher impact/lower likelihood risks. However, perception versus reality can skew what you believe is considered appropriate – as mentioned in past articles, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

We’re not medical health experts so we cannot speak to the validity of measures taken to date – both those that reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 becoming a pandemic and those that reduce the impact to the public. What the 2020 WEF report shows is that a global pandemic was not perceived to be that impactful, when compared to other risks that the respondents commented on such as “Climate action failure” or “Cyberattacks”.

The other interesting element of the 2020 WEF report is the Global Risks Interconnections Map – a systems-based approach to visualize how and to what degree these individual risks are potentially related to each other. We noted 3 clusters of interest:

Globally, these risks are perceived by the respondents to be very important, both in terms of their perceived likelihood to occur and potential impact. Although “Infectious diseases” was perceived by respondents to be within the top 10 based on impact, the connections with other risks were not perceived to be “strong” as visually represented in the Interconnections Map.  

We speculate that part of the reason the above-referenced three clusters are top of mind for respondents is that in some form, these risks are already manifesting themselves – this is indicative of the fact that individually, the risks associated with the three clusters tend to be in the upper right hand quadrant of the Impact/Likelihood map. It also, in our opinion, lends itself to how perception of risk is shaped by past and present experiences.

The issue of climate change, for example, has been at the forefront of global and political conversations for quite some time and its effects are largely understood and accepted among the scientific community. Perhaps this, coupled with incidents of experienced flooding, wildfires and other natural disasters, has shaped a new perception of and familiarity to climate risk, leading to a wider acceptance of a climate change reality among individuals, communities and governments alike. Due to this familiarity and current manifestation of climate change in our daily lives, it may have been easier or more natural for the respondents to identify linkages between climate action failure and biodiversity loss or food crises, for example. 

Conversely, “infectious disease”, on the scale we are experiencing now through COVID-19, is unfamiliar territory. In the Interconnections Map, respondents identified multiple connections between “infectious disease” and other risks, although these interactions were not given much weight in terms of the strength of their connections. This could in part be due to a lack of experience with an infectious disease of pandemic proportions or it could be due to our lack of understanding of the deeply complex and interconnected systems and infrastructure that comprise our global society. Either way, COVID-19 has thus far exposed us to our own vulnerabilities and has made evident the connections between infectious disease and some of our most critical infrastructure. 

We have seen the impacts that COVID-19 have had on health care systems, economies and perhaps in the near future we will see impacts to the food and agriculture sector. While these connections are being made on a global scale, we are also learning that the impacts of infectious disease affect each region of the globe differently and vary drastically depending on the political, social and economic systems in place. 

Over the course of the next few months, there may be more connections made. In the meantime, we must learn from these connections as they are revealed to us and fashion for ourselves a new understanding of this risk from which we can learn to take a systematic approach to managing it. In isolation, focusing on an individual risk increases the chances of cascading and escalating risk factors being missed. The nature and extent of these interrelationships is important now more than ever, especially as we begin to transition to normal routines and the resumption of services as COVID-19 becomes more manageable.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic does raise overarching questions for us. Taking into consideration what has been currently identified within the WEF Global Risk reports – what’s next and are we prepared?

Comments are closed.