Using the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic as a model, experts have suggested that the COVID-19 outbreak will last between 18 and 24 months

A group of researchers at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) suggest that the outbreak would not end until 60% to 70% of the human population is immune to the virus. This may take between 18 and 24 months.

Scientists have launched many accelerated programs to have a vaccine commercially developed to prevent the coronavirus by the middle of 2021. But this could take longer.

Without a mass vaccine in place, countries will be doing their best to contain the virus with contact tracing and targeted quarantines.

Now is a great time to reflect on what we have learned during the current global pandemic and understand what we could do better over the next two years.

Globally, the pandemic is getting worse!

The biggest economies are reopening. This means more social mobility. It also means more opportunities for the virus to spread. 

No activity will be without the risk of coronavirus.

Already, scientists who are tracking virus trends are seeing signs that re-opening is leading to a spike in cases. As such, the total number of worldwide cases and deaths will only be increasing without any sign of flattening, as shown below.

If, as most experts believe, an effective vaccine won’t be ready until well into 2021, we’ll all be co-existing with the coronavirus for the next year or longer without a magic bullet

This will require us to reset our expectations and awareness and change our behaviour.

We can all resonate with the following research findings: (Fortune, 2020)

  • Americans believe that their work lives will not go back to normal. About 7 in 10 U.S. workers say the pandemic will permanently change the nature of work and their careers. Half are considering a career change.
  • People are under tremendous levels of stress. They are also experiencing a once-in-a-generation degree of hardship. With unemployment levels above the peak of the Great Recession, Americans are concerned about losing their job (59%), their physical health (82%), their mental health (68%), and their long-term finances (83%). The jobless rate (11.1%) remains above double digits, and 59% of U.S. adults are concerned about their job security.

So, what behavioural change are you going to make to mitigate or lower your risks due to the coronavirus over the next two years?

Government welfare will stop, eventually

Government welfare payments and programs have shielded many households and individuals (so far) from the worst of the COVID19 economic and financial impact. 

But how long can governments do this without incurring mountains of public debt that will burden future generations?

Governments can’t keep borrowing and handing out money and insulating households and individuals forever. The flow of money and handouts will have to stop. 

When governments ease back from borrowing and handing out money, households and individuals will feel more fiscal, emotional and mental health pain.

Governments can only spend the money once, after increasing public debt. Increasing spending today will only reduce expenditure tomorrow. 

With decreases in economic activity and reduced tax revenues, the key question we have to ponder is this— Do we have the pain now? Or suffer the pain later?

How many people die each day?

Context plays a key role in risk management. Without a frame of reference, numbers such as the death toll from the coronavirus can be difficult to interpret and understand.

An infographic by Visual Capitalist (shown below) provides the context with the total number of worldwide daily deaths. It also outlines how many people die each day from specific causes including coronavirus.

While these numbers help provide some great context for the global scale of COVID19 deaths, they do not offer a direct comparison. But it does tell a story.

Three possible planning scenarios

Depending on control measures and other factors, coronavirus cases may come in waves of different heights, intervals, impacts and timeframes.

The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy has presented three possible scenarios over the next two years until mid-2022, as shown below.

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  • Scenario 1 — The summer months and beyond brings a series of repetitive, smaller waves of coronavirus.
  • Scenario 2 (worse case; plan for this) — A second, larger wave of infections will hit between September to November of 2020. This mirrors what happened during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic and the 2009 H1N1 flu. This second wave will be more infections. It will require countries to reinstitute mitigation measures like lockdowns.
  • Scenario 3 — The world experiences a ‘slow burn’ of ongoing coronavirus transmission.


In presenting the three scenarios, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy’s recommendations have included the following:

  • Governments should plan for the worst-case scenario (Scenario 2), including no vaccine availability or herd immunity.
  • Risk communication messaging from government officials should incorporate the concept that this pandemic will not be over soon. The key message is that people should be prepared for possible periodic resurgences of the virus over the next 2 years.

Unfortunately, pandemics have moved in waves. They have lasted between two to five years. We are only four to six months into this pandemic response with many more months to go.

Don’t hold your breath for a vaccine anytime soon

Normally, it takes up to ten years to develop an effective vaccine from start to finish, to the point where it can be given to everyone.

There is a news report that a coronavirus vaccine could be available before Christmas this year thanks to UK scientists at Oxford University. But the UK Government has cautioned that an effective coronavirus vaccine may never be found

Vaccine candidates have a normal success rate of around 7% pre-clinical. A majority of potential candidates will fail.

Moreover, the coronavirus could hit countries in multiple waves. This will led to fears that some vaccines might not work on mutated strains of the virus.

The World Health Organization said that we may never have a “silver bullet” for coronavirus. The road ahead back to normality is long. 

So, start imagining our future without a vaccine. Even if we had a vaccine today, it would take 18 months before it became available at your local doctor, or even more (see diagram below).

A Snapshot of the Global Race for Vaccines Targeting SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 Pandemic –  Front. Pharmacol., 19 June 2020 |

The good news is that there are 316 treatments and 202 vaccines in various stages of development. Scientists will continue to grapple with the confounding range of manifestations of this novel disease. It can seriously damage the lung, heart, kidney, brain, immune and blood systems.

Lockdowns are no longer effective 

We are seeing that lockdowns will no longer be effective in driving down the COVID19 cases.

Reasons for an ineffective lockdown include:

  • Fatigue. People are just tired, frustrated, and even angry. When there is a second and a third lockdown, it will take a toll on people in many ways — incomes, mental health, relationships, physical health, etc. There is also a growing frustration in the wider community as some aggressively blame the current situation on those who have failed to ‘do the right thing’.
  • Public rebellion and the rise of the sovereign citizen movement. More people will intentionally defy their authorities. People feel that their rights are being infringed upon. Fines will do nothing to stop them from rebelling.
  • The economic hardship and high unemployment have outweighed public health safety imperative. When people are losing their jobs and businesses. When they don’t have money to live on, they will rebel. People’s livelihoods are at stake. They need money to provide for their own basic needs.
  • A growing number of COVID sceptics and deniers. They have questioned the severity of the virus. This is where fake news and misinformation have spread as fast and as far as the virus itself. It has infected social media newsfeeds across the world.

What to expect?

The worst-case scenario is that we don’t get this coronavirus ‘under control’ over the next two years (best case). Borders will remain closed or restricted — both domestically and internationally. Economic activities will be severely restricted. Lives will be impacting. Unemployment rates will be high.

There will be significant impacts on businesses and industries — tourism, education, housing, industries, Government programs/spending, etc. Many businesses will be closed.

The virus behind SARS had intrinsic qualities that made it harder to spread and easier to control, compared to the one behind COVID-19, which has overwhelmed the world… Making matters worse is that COVID-19’s virus is transmissible before symptoms appear… For COVID-19, at least 40% of the world’s 7.6 bn people will probably become infected, with millions of deaths. We have a long and sorrowful way to go. So we had better respond wisely. (Economist, 2020)

If we take a conservative estimate of two years before an effective vaccine can be commercially developed and administered on a mass scale, we should expect:

  • High unemployment.
  • Increasing public/government debt — to pay for welfare payments, subsidies, economic stimulation, etc.
  • Lowering on living standards.
  • Reductions in freedoms, consumption, travel, health, well being, etc.
  • Severe economic hardship for everyone — Governments, communities, households and individuals.
  • Civil unrest and rebellion.

Plan for the worst hope for the best

People do not plan to fail but fail to plan.

Develop a pandemic survival plan that covers two years (or more). It will help us focus and prioritise our limited resources. The plan could put us in the right frame of mind.

Make the relevant planning assumptions and ruthlessly implement the pandemic survival plan.

It will truly be a survival plan as we intentionally create the future we want.

What can individuals do?

Key questions to ask: 

  • What is life going to look like over the next two years? Proactively create and intentionally plan your survival for the next two years.
  • How can I proactively manage my life to obtain a positive outcome? Determine the outcomes you want rather than waiting for things to happen to you.


For individuals, here are some planning considerations covering the next 24 months:

  • Stress-test your finances, budgets and investments — Plan for a reduction in household income by 50% or even 70%. Look over your finances and budgets. Review your expenses — identify needs and wants. Arrange access to credit and debt just in case you need it — redundancy, layoff or a health crisis. Protect your savings, investments and capital reserves. Be prudent when investing. Beware of scams. Review and preserve your superannuation or retirement savings.
  • Build or rekindle social and family relationships — Take advantage of the ‘downtime’ to connect or reconnect with people. Loneliness can be a silent killer. Human relationships are good for the soul and mental health.
  • Review career and educational aspirations — Take the opportunity to change career or jobs and acquire new skills and knowledge. Update your LinkedIn profile and resume. Build and sustain your people networks — they may come in handy in connecting you to a future job opportunity. Find the information you need to efficiently explore opportunities in the labour market and make decisions about your career. Build up your career confidence and navigation.
  • Maintain or improve your physical health, recreation and leisure — Your work performance during isolation, lockdown or quarantine hinges on the level of fitness and alertness. Exercise especially boosts cardiovascular health and fitness. It improves the body’s ability to circulate oxygen. This improves energy immediately, but over time you also feel less tired when in better physical condition.
  • Volunteer and give back to society — Enhance your experience (and resume) by volunteering, especially if you are out of a job. Keep yourself productive. Engage your mind and personal connections with people. Focus on your strengths and values. 
  • Maintain a positive mental, emotional and spiritual health — Build a ‘margin’ that you can rely on when you face challenges or when you are down. Identify and fulfil your emotional needs. Find and build personal and professional supports. Feelings of anxiety are common in the uncertainty of coronavirus. Accept your emotions. Let go of negative thinking. Build positive self-talk.
  • Do things that you have been putting off — There may be some things that never seem to get done — reading, cleaning up the yard, starting a hobby or blog, etc. It is time to be productive at home. Maintain your daily routine. 


What can businesses and organisations do? 

Key questions to ask: 

  • How conserve cash and boost liquidity to keep the business and organisation afloat and thrive over the next two years? Proactively managing the cash flow will be vital for the long-term.
  • What will be new normal going to look like for my customers, business and workplace? Take advantage of the opportunities presented due to changes in personal preferences and behaviours.
  • How does the business need to shift, restructure or reorganise to take advantage of the opportunities presented? A crisis is a good opportunity to innovate and make the required changes to reposition and shift for the upturn.


For corporates, here are some planning considerations covering the next 24 months:

  • Reset and radically transform the entire cost structure — Aggressively focus on cash and cash flow. Tighten working capital execution. Establish short-, mid-, and long-term actions to fundamentally adjust for the future and uncertainties. Find low-risk decisions and strategic moves that are high-reward.
  • Determine if your market and customer preferences have changed or can change in the future — Understand what has happened to your customers, suppliers and competitors. Determine market trends, disruptors and preference changes. Redesign customer experience. Improve service delivery.
  • Revisit strategic priorities and develop a clear strategy — Focus on your core capabilities that will differentiate your business, services/products and value proposition. Double down on your differentiating capabilities. Be clear on your must-haves to survive and thrive over the next two years.
  • Strengthen your supply chain — Develop flexible but reliable supply, production and logistics networks. Optimise supply chain processes and dependencies. Evaluate service delivery models. Diversify supply chains and resources.
  • Bring people on a journey into new ways of operating — Reimagine your operating model. Engage the teams and stakeholders. Allow teams to innovate and solve problems quickly. Collaborate across boundaries. Show empathy. Be transparent. Act with urgency. Express gratitude. Place value on learning, upskilling, etc. Support employee well-being and mental health.
  • Adopt flexible, virtual and diversified approaches that support autonomy, flexibility and adaptability — Take accountability for decisions. Raise the tolerance for imperfection. Accelerate your cultural evolution.
  • Upskill or reskills the workforce — Actively engage the workforce to define the required behaviours, skills and competencies. Build an organisation that could survive and thrive. Update talent management and leadership development to incorporate new roles, skills and competencies. Increase the mix of flexible talent based on new technologies, business models and strategies.
  • Assess infrastructure and enact safeguards — Ensure workspaces are ready for safe employee return. Create workplace trust and safety. Social distancing is a must. Reiterate the need for good personal hygiene.
  • Reimagine the next normal — Rethink how work gets done in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and resilience. Classify and prioritise services and products. Reprioritise backlogs, projects and resources.

Related articles

How to develop a recovery roadmap post-COVID-19 (and what are the key strategic considerations for a successful recovery)

How organisations can survive COVID-19


What can governments do?

Key questions to ask:

  • How to restart and stimulate the economy and keep people employed? Keeping the economy going and people employed will be vital over the next two years.
  • How to mitigate the public health crisis and keep people safe until a vaccine can be found? Governments cannot focus too much on the public health crisis in preference over the health of the economy and mass unemployment.
  • How to provide critical government services that meet expectations? Public expectations have increased for government services and increase welfare funding to be made available without incurring huge amounts of public debt.
  • How to prevent economies for slipping further into recession or depression? With some countries already in recession or at the door of recession pre-COVID, governments must do more to mitigate any further slide.

Develop long-term concrete strategies and plans to keep economies continuously open. Ruthlessly mitigate any emerging public health risks without sacrificing economic growth. Don’t continuously reopen and close economies just because the COVID cases are going up. Give economic and employment certainty to businesses and workers.

For governments, here are some planning considerations covering the next 24 months:

  • Restore and stimulate economic activities — Support hardest-hit areas and industries and vulnerable communities and individuals. Engage in private sector participation to revive businesses, sectors and industries. Encourage individuals and businesses to resume spending and investment. Reduce or mitigate business failures. Protect liquidity and cash flow through employment, welfare and subsidies. Ease financial obligations by postponing or waiving taxes and fees.
  • Promote economic health — Reskilling or upskilling workers and citizens. Provide targeted stimulus funding and subsidies. Analyse data. Build partnerships. Expand hiring and training. Tailor programs to meet employer and worker needs and requirements. Support businesses and workers.
  • Rethink how government services and functions are delivered — Implement innovative public health measures and digitisation of services. Safeguard workers in workplaces. Consider new demands and opportunities. Collaborate with other governments, agencies and corporates. Be transparent. Bring services back to acceptable levels. 
  • Provide government services based on criticality, risk and reach — Segment and sequence services and employees. Monitor and address emerging risk areas. Implement a robust communication strategy that increases transparency and builds trust. 
  • Manage public health risks — Screening, testing and tracing on a massive scale. Maintain a safe and healthy environment. Manage hospital capacity and access to treatments. Review and update regulations. Support future vaccination efforts. Improve social care. Overcome public concerns.
  • Prepare for the next normal — Build long-term enhancements to the public sector and public health initiatives. Establish a better foundation for the future. Create new levels of flexibility.
  • Evaluate supply chain vulnerability — Strengthen supply chain vulnerability of food, supplies, medicines, and devices for life-saving care against global shocks.
  • Improve compliance and personal self-care — Limit transmission through quarantining, physical distancing, remote work requirements, and shelter-in-place orders. 
  • Acting with integrity, quickly and adjust rapidly to feedback — Reduce red tape and bureaucracy. Be agile and adaptive. Initiate policy reforms. Implement processes that are flexible, fast and efficient. Address any misinformation.


Related article

We can’t go on reopening and closing economies forever (10 steps for permanently keeping economies open)


Finally, plan for a marathon, not a sprint

The number of infectious diseases like SARS, HIV and COVID19 has increased by nearly fourfold over the past century. Since 1980 alone, the number of outbreaks per year has more than tripled.

COVID19 has reminded us that infectious diseases haven’t vanished. It is no longer a black swan event. There are more new infectious diseases now than ever before. 

Planning for them will be crucial for our survival and existence. Pandemic preparedness planning will become the norm for individuals, organisations and governments. So too a pandemic survival plan when it does occur.

Plan for a marathon, not a sprint.