When COVID-19 first surfaced in China, we were told not to worry unduly, as seasonal flu and pollution killed more people, so everybody went about their business as usual. People kept socialising, eating out, and attending football matches and other events without a care in the world. By the time that governments and people started realising that this virus was twice as infectious as flu and more lethal it was too late and the virus started spreading exponentially. National health systems were ill prepared to combat the virus, mainly because it was new and unknown to science, so protective gear and equipment for health professionals, such as masks and respirators were and still are in short supply. Underfunded health-care systems all over the world, focused on treatment rather than prevention are struggling to meet the challenge.
Lessons are, unsurprisingly, being learnt the hard way with more mistakes sending the public health situation deeper into disaster. Worse, as our communications methods move from an expert-based model to a bottom-up citizen-based community model, our friends on social media become our main source of information. Thank heaven for Prof. Charmaine Gauci who keeps us updated on a daily basis, calls a spade a spade and fields (sometimes very vapid) questions from the press with amazing poise and equanimity.
The authorities in the West responsible for managing public health risks were made aware of the threat from a novel coronavirus at the beginning of January 2020. Most took immediate action in mid-March by applying precautionary measures (lockdowns, social distancing, travel bans…) Was this the only possible action they could have taken to manage risks? What should they have done in those two and a half months to have alleviated such a massive denial of social benefits and stress on humanity?
Our policymakers are mainly lawyers, doctors (of medicine), economists, accountants, etc., professions that one only refers to when a problem crops up and one requires treatment or advice. In short, they are all reactive. They do not manage risks, but take precautions. When there are hazards, risk managers seek the means to lower exposure via risk reduction measures so as to enjoy the benefits while controlling the risks: the M.A.M. advocated stopping all incoming flights as a means to reduce risks, our policymakers refused to even consider this measure until it was too late. Most of the victims of COVID-19 are imported. Politicians manage uncertainty with spin. Uncertainty management implies that where there is uncertainty on levels of safe exposure, stopping a process, product or activity (precaution) is the main decision-guiding tool. If you cannot prove that mobile phones are safe, then ban mobile phones. Precaution is not a question of being either right or wrong, it is about avoiding being wrong.
In the case of COVID-19, uncertainty management was applied. If you cannot ensure that the virus would be contained, then stop all activities and human interaction and to hell with the benefits of trade, education, finance and jobs. Normally precaution should be applied when all other risk management efforts have failed and the consequences are too terrible to fathom. As the persons managing our risks are less and less risk literate, precaution has become the only tool in their toolkit used immediately in any situations of uncertainty.
Whereas risk management relies on risk reduction measures to ensure benefits and public goods, uncertainty management (precaution) relies on failure reduction measures to ensure policymakers don’t get blamed.
When the virus is eventually contained, and it doesn’t look as if that is going to happen anytime soon, things are not going to go back to how they were three months ago. Anybody who thinks that we’re going to revert back to our normal “l-aqwa żmien” routine of living high on the hog, is living in la-la land. That ship has sailed.