Beware of big action with little results

The excessive urge to show something is being done, actionism is often futile and it is seen everywhere in the world these days


One of the first German words I learnt, when I lived in Germany from 1999 to 2002, was "actionism".

The Oxford dictionary of the German language, the Duden, defines this frequently used German word as the excessive urge to show that something is being done.

This often happens when politicians initiate disorganised political or social actions targeted at a problem - say, climate change or unemployment - without thinking it through properly.

In short, as the Hokkien saying goes, "ho kua bo ho jiak" - food that looks good, but is ultimately inedible.

Besides being highly infectious, the coronavirus seems to have spawned numerous examples of actionism at many levels of society. Everybody has seen pictures of masked public workers or drones spraying streets with disinfectant in futile acts of mass disinfection.

Such measures have been criticised by disease specialists as health hazards, as well as a waste of time and resources.

Professor Dale Fisher, an infectious diseases expert in Singapore who chairs the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network coordinated by the World Health Organisation, said: "It's a ridiculous image seen in many countries."

He added: "I don't believe it adds anything to the response (against the coronavirus) and could be toxic on people. The virus does not survive for long in the environment and people do not generally touch the ground."

Similarly, when New York City was nearing the apex of infections in the state, the United States Navy hospital ship, USNS Comfort, was sent there to help back up the city's health system. United States President Donald Trump personally sent the ship off, saying it would play a "critical role" in New York's fight against the disease.

According to the US Navy, USNS Comfort has a 1,000-hospital bed capacity, the equivalent of a medium-sized US hospital. With 1,100 medical personnel on board, it contains 12 fully equipped operating rooms, radiology services, a medical laboratory and pharmacy.

Expectations ran high. But after almost a week docked in New York, the succour turned to rancour.


Only about 20 patients were treated on the ship after five days. Hospital executives coping with thousands of coronavirus patients in their bursting wards and emergency rooms started to rail against the actionism of bringing the ship to the city.

"The ship really seems kind of useless," a city hospital physician caring for coronavirus patients told CNN International.

Mr Michael Dowling, head of Northwell Health, New York's largest hospital system, said: "If I'm blunt about it, it's a joke."

Apparently, the ship's strict rules prevented people infected with the virus from coming on board. According to The New York Times, guidelines disseminated to hospitals included a list of 49 medical conditions that would exclude a patient from admittance, including the coronavirus - the main reason the ship was sent to New York in the first place.

More than a week after its arrival, the USNS Comfort started to admit more sick patients, but by then, the number of daily admissions in New York had started to level off.

It would appear actionism ranks up there as a political ideology that has come to define the modern world. In the same way observers might label a person a communist, socialist or capitalist, the Germans use the label to identify people with a predilection for futile actions.

In corporate life, everybody has come across managers or colleagues who consistently resort to futile action. When the boss gives an order, these said workers spring into action, sending reports, organising conference calls and writing flurries of e-mails with many people being copied on them. All this is to create a perception of activity but ultimately, little is achieved, except the perception that much is being done.

In my more than 20 years in the medical device industry, I have watched senior executives infatuate over certain ideas. This makes their marketing as well asresearch and development teams rush headlong into futile acts of product or service development actionism. Pressure from management often causes teams to push forward at all costs and wing it, just to be seen to be doing something - anything.

This type of futile activity often leads to zero results, with projects being quietly scrapped, when the bosses move on to the next flavour of the month.

Why does this sound so familiar? We witness it so often, the same way we are now witnessing the mad rush to develop and build ventilators for patients suffering from the respiratory complications arising from the coronavirus.

These complex medical devices stabilise coronavirus patients when their respiratory functions deteriorate. With the rapid escalation of the virus, the number of ventilators needed globally has far outstripped the available supply in many countries.

As the virus has spread, so has the number of efforts to build these critically needed ventilators. There are numerous headlines of automobile and general appliance players like Dyson, Ford, General Motors and Tesla changing lanes and jumping into the ventilator game.

Michigan Technological University's Professor Joshua Pearce recently wrote a paper in science publication platform F1000Research, which found more than 10 open-source ventilator and respirator projects. In his review, all he found for some projects was "little more than a picture or video are available".

Sadly, as a long-time practitioner in the medtech field, I too believe that only a tiny number of the many ventilator projects out there will yield a viable medical device that will save patients' lives.

The British government recently cancelled a plan to buy thousands of ventilators from a Renault-Red Bull Formula One consortium. Its device has not received regulatory approval, despite voluminous press coverage, and was deemed insufficient in its capability to treat coronavirus patients.

Here in Singapore and other major cities, with schools closed, working from home has become challenging for some, with spouses, kids and pets all sharing small enclosed living spaces for extended periods of time. In such times, pretending to work could be an act of actionism.

On that note, I salute a friend who recently left his job as a urologist.

He did not want to compromise his values as a doctor and endure the toxicity and actionism of his workplace. He shared in a post announcing his decision: "In these strange days of forced distancing, I plan to spend my time really getting to know my son and spending time with my wife. Trying to tolerate my new dog. And leaving my old cat alone."

While not everyone has the resources to leave a workplace just because it is prone to actionism, we can all pause what we are doing, take a step back and practise a moment of mindfulness.

Find your place of peace in the blur of actionism. Take a moment to clarify what you are doing and, more importantly, why you do it.

The antidote to actionism? Perspective and purpose.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 19, 2020, with the headline Beware of big action with little results. Subscribe