Government and governance, Health | Australia, The World

13 August 2020

Governments are directed by democratic incentives to favour reaction to crises, as opposed to preventative action. Leaders should listen to the preventative advice of experts and act accordingly, Bodhi Hardinge writes.

Several months into the worst economic shock since the great depression and one of the worst health crises in modern times, the world is stunned.

The multi-trillion-dollar economic downturn it is now experiencing is but one of many potential cataclysms that democratic governments around the world in the future must attempt to better mitigate against and build resilience to.

Part of this ought to be a policy autopsy. Policymakers must ask themselves, ‘What happened and why?’. What is most likely is that widespread failures to respond to the pandemic are both a product of the dismissal of expertise and the mixed incentives inherent to democracies.

Calls that all governments must properly and thoroughly prepare for pandemics in the future will invariably play some part of this reaction, but risk missing the point. That is, institutions and experts have been making noise to this end for decades, and most governments have largely ignored them.

The world is living with the consequences of minimising or devaluing expertise in public discussion. Whether it be from the proliferation of ‘stealth issue advocates’ or the persistence of ‘merchants of doubt’, many societies are more apathetic and worse off because the legitimacy of expertise has been almost fatally undermined.

There are two angles to this. First, in the immediate and ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and second, the systemic dismissal of long-term risks raised by experts over many years across the world. Any reaction that focuses exclusively on the former, rather than both, will miss out on tackling the core of the issue.

More on this: Cultivating research expertise for complex policy problems

In years to come, reviews will be conducted, and changes will be sternly claimed as necessary for the future – ‘real action’ at last. The World Health Organization has stated that a key lesson from COVID-19 is that effective and trusted communication is vital in the managing of the outbreak.

However, this is not just a lesson from COVID-19, but also from the still recent 2009 H1N1 pandemic, and SARS before that. Clearly, some leaders ignored the importance of those lessons, and what must be core to the post-pandemic conversation is how to prevent them ignoring it again.

There is no shortage of expertise across the world, both in nations that have so far dealt well with COVID-19, and nations that have not. Similarly, some leaders have embraced their advice, and others have mocked them.

Leaders like President Donald Trump of the United States and President Jair Bolsanaro of Brazil have put the people they swore to protect in grave danger by actively undermining and neglecting expertise. In contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s deference for field-matter experts has led to one of the most successful responses to the pandemic. Clearly, expertise matters.

Unfortunately, public outrage often decays quickly, and governments take this opportunity to shirk their responsibilities. Taking a step back, this is a deep political problem that is unlikely to change as a result of just one crisis.

The other key driver of pandemic mismanagement, after ignoring experts, has been perverse political motivations. Ultimately, investing millions of dollars to avoid a problem in the future, which another government will take credit for, is not as politically or electorally rewarding as blowing trillions of dollars fixing it on the fly.

It is glibly said that leaders should ‘never waste a crisis’, which highlights this perversion in political leadership. While a good response to a crisis is always popular, prevention is often a thankless exercise.

A systemic political response to COVID-19 must go beyond the immediate task of the pandemic, take a step back, and endeavour to prevent or mitigate foreseeable pandemics in the future. On top of this, it should take time to prepare for the many other high-impact risks beyond pandemics that fail to register proportional public or political interest.

More on this: Leading in and out of the crisis

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge is a think-tank that explores events such as pandemics, but also lower probability existential events. The fact that this is a university think-tank and not a government department is indicative of the systemic issue in the way that society approaches low-probability, high-impact events.

The role of the chief scientist or sporadic working groups within various departments might come close, but as Australia’s record on climate action has shown, there is little ongoing appetite for long-term risk abatement.

Whether it be coronal mass ejections from the sun, a rogue asteroid, or a human-induced cataclysm, governments and their institutions are directed by a set of unfortunately perverse democratic incentives to favour reaction to crises, as opposed to preventative action.

A similarly dismissive thing can be said about pandemics, excessive usage of antibiotics, rampant carbon emissions growth, or microplastic accumulation in the ocean. Public discussion and governance have often minimised, neglected, or outright ignored warnings from relevant subject-matter experts.

Unlike other recent pandemics, COVID-19 has been front and centre to the developed world, and given this, the reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic will surely address some of the weaknesses that led more directly to this generation-defining disaster. However, the deeper systemic causes of disasters will go unaddressed without a change in attitude toward experts and expertise.

Sadly, it is evident that most of the world’s governments were underprepared for a pandemic, something which has happened in the past and, without a change in outlook, will happen again.

Pandemic-potential pathogens and many other disasters will occur in the future, and governments must be prepared. Instead of focusing on only what it can do now to react to COVID-19, people should ask themselves why their governments were not listening more to those advocating for stronger preparation.

This is not just limited to pandemic control. Literal schools of experts highlight the danger of continued fossil fuel usage, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the growing risks of disease, or excessive overuse of antibiotics in agriculture, and yet governments continue to neglect calls for systemic change.

With each report or review published in the wake of this pandemic, societies should wake up to the cost of their own indifference to expertise. Subject-matter expertise may not always be coherent or perfectly correct, but it is the best resource society has in understanding an increasingly complex world.

Ultimately, the imminent post-pandemic policy frenzy must focus on resolving the systemic neglect and dismissal of expertise in the mitigation of global risks, instead of thinking solely in terms of reacting to the problems of the time.

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