Are experts, govts and states to be trusted? That's a key test in virus crisis

LONDON • Trying to identify the long-term consequences of a crisis well before it is over is always a risky business, not only because circumstances can change, but also because the perspective one has during a crisis is shaped by episodes that look important now, but which may well turn out to be ephemeral in the long term.

And that applies in spades to all those seeking to draw conclusions from the current coronavirus pandemic. We know we are in the throes of a major crisis which, logically, can get much worse but, just as possibly, could abate.

Yet almost everything else – from the damage the coronavirus pandemic will inflict on the global economy and right up to the broader question of whether the crisis will discredit some political systems but validate others – remains a matter of speculation.

Nor are we able to tell at this stage whether the tragedy of a country like Italy – which, to date, has suffered the highest mortality rate of the pandemic – will define our memory of the crisis, or whether other horrors lurk around the corner and have the capacity to relegate the sad story of Italy to a mere footnote of history.

Still, and even at this early stage, there are a few conclusions to be drawn about the crisis, and with a relatively high degree of confidence. They relate to the manner in which some key Western nations are willing to be governed in moments of high stress, the way globalised trade and supply chains actually work in moments of grave need and, finally, the lack of awareness that most people suffer from in dealing with a major crisis.

EXPERTS AND POLITICIANS

For many years, political commentators in many industrialised nations have complained that voters no longer trust the advice of experts, and are easily attracted to populist politicians peddling impossible solutions or voodoo economic schemes.

The decision of British voters to pull their country out of the European Union and Mr Donald Trump’s election in the United States have frequently been presented as evidence of a growing tendency among electorates to vote on impulse rather than with their brains, to be attracted to politicians who are good at stirring up existing frustrations rather than offering viable solutions.

However, what is striking in the management of the current coronavirus crisis is not only how much the experts – public health specialists, virologists or epidemiologists – have been firmly embedded in the decisions governments have taken, but also how much the health specialists have communicated directly with the public.

In Britain – where a senior minister still in the Cabinet became notorious for remarking that “people in this country have had enough of experts” – it was not Prime Minister Boris Johnson but two of his wingmen – Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s top scientific adviser, and Professor Chris Whitty, the country’s chief medical officer – who became the public faces of this crisis, answering questions at daily press conferences and popping up on television screens nationwide. And in the US, even Mr Trump understood that he had to share a platform with medical experts and was flanked by them at many public appearances.

But if Western politicians hoped that putting experts in prime public spots would lend credibility to their actions, they were largely disappointed.

In many Asian countries where respect for authority is still strong and electorates largely trust their leaders – in places such as South Korea, Japan or Singapore – people went along and largely complied with the measures asked of them.

Yet in most Western countries, the public reliance on experts did little to generate a consensus on what needs to be done. Criticism of what the authorities were asking for was rife, and defiance of official advice remained a daily occurrence.

A venerable Italian tradition of “furbo” – of being cunning in evading government rules, born of a legacy of centuries of viewing public authorities as incompetent – was on full display in this crisis, reducing Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to dramatic appeals to his people to “stop thinking about being furbo” and apply self-quarantine measures.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron had to make speeches in which he defined the current struggle as a national war, invoking all the historic sacrifices of his nation over the centuries, largely because the calm advice of medical experts failed to persuade French men and women.

But probably the most spectacular failure of the attempt to put science at the forefront of public policy occurred in Britain. In vain did the country’s medical experts spend days explaining over the airwaves that the reason they were prioritising hand-washing and self-isolation instead of cancelling large-scale events and closing schools was that they wanted to flatten the peak of the epidemic to help the British medical services cope with the demand for extra hospital beds and to build a “herd immunity” among those infected but suffering only mild symptoms.

But as British ministers quickly discovered, for every scientist approving of their strategy, two other scientists popped up claiming that the government’s approach was disastrous. The media, always in search of the sensational, gave huge publicity to an open letter signed by 245 British scientists urging their government to impose “more restrictive measures”. The fact that most of these “scientists” were not experts in immunology but in completely different disciplines such as statistics or mathematics did not seem to matter; if the government had its “people in white coats”, so did the government’s critics.

In reality, the British public was not impressed by scientific expertise; in a time of crisis, it wanted to be reassured by grand gestures such as widespread closures of enterprises, institutions and schools, even if it was told that many of these moves made no practical difference to the inexorable march of the pandemic.

And as time went by, a competition of sorts opened up between European governments as to who imposed more draconian restrictions.

The Italians closed their airspace? Why does Britain not do the same?

The French ordered their cities into “lockdown” – a word that will from now on be forever associated with this crisis – so why is Mr Johnson not imposing martial law on London’s streets?

The lesson will not be forgotten: Politicians cannot outsource the business of governing to the experts, regardless of how much respect the experts may command. And logic is not the only commodity required in managing a crisis: Sometimes, the spectacular move is needed, even if it may be spectacularly irrelevant.

A BLOW TO GLOBALISATION

Another unpleasant discovery which Western politicians made is that the virtues of the global market and globalised methods of production are largely useless when it comes to a crisis of this sort.

The lesson will not be forgotten: Politicians cannot outsource the business of governing to the experts, regardless of how much respect the experts may command. And logic is not the only commodity required in managing a crisis: Sometimes, the spectacular move is needed, even if it may be spectacularly irrelevant.

The moment it became clear that the coronavirus infection is serious, all European Union countries imposed a ban on the export of medical equipment to one another; the much-touted single internal market on the European continent simply collapsed, as individual countries rushed to hoard face masks and other protective gear.

The phenomenon was not unique to Europe – South Korea and the US also imposed export bans. But the erection of export controls was particularly painful in Europe, a continent which elevated the principle of the free flow of goods between its countries to the status of a religion. Yet when the chips were down, when countries needed this free trade most, it simply evaporated.

More seriously still, the same German government which has spent the past few years complaining about Mr Trump’s protectionist measures rushed to stop an American takeover of a German vaccine manufacturer. Claims that the US wanted to buy the German manufacturer in order to have exclusive access to potential coronavirus vaccines are false. But facts no longer matter: Germany, one of the biggest beneficiaries of globalisation, suddenly rediscovered 19th-century protectionist policies. And so did many other countries.

The episode has prompted leaders around the world to look at the entire supply chain of medicines; Mr Peter Navarro, Mr Trump’s trade adviser, is pushing the US to enact an export ban on certain medical supplies and compel pharmaceutical companies to manufacture drugs domestically in order to replace China’s dominance in the production of generic drugs such as antibiotics.

And although Mr Navarro is famous for his distaste for China’s trade practices, similar moves for the “re-nationalisation” of trade in medical supplies are being considered by European governments.

The coronavirus epidemic has dealt a bigger blow to globalisation than all the protective measures of Mr Trump. And it has also taught governments everywhere that medicines and medical supplies should from now on be considered strategic goods, rather than just mere tradeable commodities.

Another lesson that is sure to emerge from the crisis is that publics in industrialised nations require some training in coping with emergencies. For when it comes to panic buying, which populations in all the countries afflicted by the virus have resorted to, there were some instructive differences.

From Asia to Europe, people hoarded purchases of essentials with long shelf life, such as rice, instant noodles, pasta and beans, as well as toilet paper.

In essence, the coronavirus crisis has already generated quite a number of lessons about governance, markets and national psyches.

But it has also acted as a reminder of that old truism – that such crises are ultimately a fundamental test of trust, a make-or-break moment not just for proving the efficiency of governments, but also the credibility of states.

And on that, the verdict is still to be delivered.

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