The Role of Thought Experiments as Sources of Insight and Lessons to Tackle Pandemics and Other Existential Challenges


May 5, 2023

“We invite people to exercise their imagination and think collectively on the failures of the current global health governance.” – De Souza (WFPHA) and Jadad (Center for Digital Therapeutics)

In February 2022, the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA) encouraged the use of thought experiments to improve humanity’s ability to manage pandemics and other existential threats. Delegates of the 17th World Congress on Public Health (2nd – 6th May, Rome), the overall public health community, and civil society members are invited to contribute to the further exploration of this method.

“What we tend to see is that the public health problems become visible only during the crisis and that’s why somebody needs to clean the mess. But it’s extremely difficult to do because the mess is getting bigger and bigger. The public health community is pretty powerless to deal with this problem. I think that the 17th World Congress on Public Health provides an opportunity for the public health community to reflect upon its role“, underlines Prof. Alejandro Jadad, a physician from the Center for Digital Therapeutics and one of the promoters of the Thought Experiment.

The imaginative capabilities of the human mind enable us to travel through time and space. Scientists and philosophers use this ability to create hypothetical situations, also known as Thought Experiments, to explore alternative approaches to complex issues, particularly when challenging the existing norm.

The creation of a Thought Experiment, which Albert Einstein used in some of his most important studies, involves five steps: beginning with a hypothesis or question, followed by assumptions, a hypothetical scenario, mental analysis, and communication of findings to others.

“It is important to note that this scenario is entirely fictional and not a recommendation or proposal for action. Our main goal is to help people to reflect collectively on the failures of the current global health governance. What really strikes us is that in 2019 we had international health regulations in place and nevertheless the best-valued countries in terms of capacity to respond to the epidemical crisis failed. Thus, it’s not a problem of the text of the regulation itself but how the members of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) took their responsibilities regarding the protection of people’s health”, – explains Prof. Luis Eugenio de Souza, the WFPHA president.

“The Thought Experiment is a very powerful tool. We invite people to exercise the power of their imagination and create situations that due to the knowledge acquired during the pandemic will allow us to come up with solutions to the problems that we face today”, specifies Prof. Jadad.

In a hypothetical scenario, a team of public health experts in 2023 discovers a time machine that could take them back to the beginning of the pandemic.

After conducting extensive research, the team identified a trustworthy group of people to represent humanity’s interests and ensure the equitable and efficient use of resources to halt the virus’s spread and mitigate consequences of the pandemic. This group was named the Planetary Health Protection Council (PHPC). The team was transported via the time machine to the UN headquarters in New York City, where they arrived on March 11, 2020, during the President of the Security Council’s presidential statement.

To explore the potential of thought experiments in pushing boundaries and stimulating fresh thinking about how to tackle pandemics and other existential threats, a hypothetical question was formulated:

If we had the power to travel back in time and add one resource to the available resources on March 11, 2020, to improve our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, what resource would we choose?

  • “The response to this question can be summed up in two words: a coordination failure. We are failing to coordinate our response and it makes us unable to deal not only with the pandemic but also with climate change, with drought, with hunger, and with the war”, Prof. Jadad says.
  • “We came to the conclusion that humanity lacked a species-wide governance system in 2020. There was a lack of accountability on the issues that went beyond the national jurisdiction. To be able to move towards effective global governance, we need to raise some specific questions to promote further reflection on the subject: 1) how far can national sovereignty go? 2) what could be done to protect the democratic decision-making mechanism, and how it can couple with the global one?”, Prof. de Souza adds.

Prof. Luis Eugenio de Souza notes that during the pandemic, the decision-making process was unbalanced. Therefore, it is extremely important to create a completely new, transparent, and impartial system. This role can be potentially fulfilled by the Planetary Health Protection Council (PHPC).

The imaginary composition of the PHPC:

  • The government sector: Heads of state of all members of the UN
    Role: Providing high-level political leadership for rapid and coordinated action, advised by UN specialized agencies
  • The corporate sector: Members of the World Economic Forum (WEF)
    Role: Facilitating the deployment of privately-owned technical and financial resources within and across national boundaries
  • The academic sector: Experts selected by the International Association of Universities
    Role: Strengthening of evidence-informed decision-making by the other groups
  • Civil society: Leaders selected from the 24,000 entities registered in the Integrated Civil Society Organizations System
    Role: Involving communities, especially giving voice to disadvantaged populations

“I would like to stress that our proposal to create the PHPC is not mature enough and thus it can be modified. We just want to put it on the table and open the discussion not only with the experts and political leaders but also to listen to the local communities and the people that suffered a lot but weren’t given the possibility to express themselves so far. We want to create such a representation which would give the floor to everybody who wants to participate“, specifies the WFPHA president.

Two independent and closely-related structures complement the PHPC:

  • A digital platform to facilitate transparent and equitable participation of representative samples of the world’s population in key decisions (e.g., lockdowns, vaccine certification)
  • A system of in-person and virtual tools designed to encourage and facilitate community engagement in controversial issues and adversarial situations, from villages to the entire globe.