The COVID‐19 pandemic is a crisis with high complexity and should be understood as such by scholarship. A complexity science approach situates increasingly divergent ideological and epistemological perspectives about the crisis within the practical exigencies of containment and mitigation measures. We ask which of the seven stages of soft systems methodology contributes to deeper understandings about COVID‐19 as a policy issue, beyond the contributions of current and conventional perspectives. The discussion outlines implications for practice and places them within broader debates about tensions between scientific facts and political values. Copyright © 2020 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.