Summary: COVID-19 is a test for America’s ability to cope with the severe crises that lie ahead in the 21st century. Our prosperity, perhaps our survival, might depend on how well we learn from it. Let’s start by looking at the crisis management methods of our senior leaders. It’s the key to success – or failure.
It’s fun to watch America go bonkers, in a gallows humor kind of way, from COVID-19. Countless articles, blog posts, and (god help us) chain emails by amateurs doubting the official COVID-19, recalculating the numbers, and inventing their own numbers. Amateurs building epidemiological models (why do universities bother with graduate schools for this stuff, if it is so easy?) and issuing bold confident predictions. Amateurs boldly confidently announcing that they know the origins of the epidemic. The only thing amateurs aren’t doing is inventing treatments and vaccines.
Instead, let’s ask operationally important and useful questions. Such as these.
- What was the process by which US officials instituted lock-downs in areas that were not hot spots? That is, moving beyond WHO’s recommendations of social distancing, testing, contract tracing, and quarantines of those exposed?
- What experts were consulted in this process? Did they give formal opinions?
- What models were relied upon? “Lots” is not an answer. What was the process of evaluating them?
- As new data comes in, what formal process is being used to update the models and produce formal advice for policy-makers about restarting the economy?
Success in crisis management usually results to a large degree from the process followed; seldom the result of the bold leader pulling brilliant decisions out of the air. The better the process, the more effective the situation is managed. Here are my guesses (guesses!) about this pandemic. I do not have the time to research them, so toss them out for comment and correction.
There was no effective process at the national or state level, that our leaders panicked, and that a herd effect resulted – with officials copying what others did. There were meetings, many meetings. Many people were informally consulted, with no process for collating their advice. The impact of each person’s advice depended more on their boldness and personal appearance rather than their qualifications or record.
Also, the pool consisted of politicians, bureaucrats, amateur epidemiologists (e.g., economists, who love to cosplay other kinds of experts), and epidemiologists (and a few in closely related fields, such as immunology). Unfortunately, this provides no meaningful questioning of the epidemiologists. The politicians are ignorant and the economists sow confusion.
Experts from related fields can challenge the epidemiologists, revealing limitations in their guidance that would not otherwise appear (this has been one of my top recommendations for dealing with climate change). People like Michael Levitt, a biophysicist who teaches structural biology at Stanford University and received the Nobel prize in 2013 for “the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.” In a March 13 interview, he explained why his early predictions about COVID-19 in China proved correct, and he puts this pandemic in a useful context.
“[T}here are years when flu is raging, like in the U.S. in 2017, when there were three times the regular number of mortalities. And still, we did not panic. That is my message: you need to think of corona like a severe flu. It is four to eight times as strong as a common flu, and yet, most people will remain healthy ….”
My guess is that a well-assembled team of experts in February or early March would have said that there was inadequate data about COVID-19 to draw strong conclusions or make reliable predictions. The numbers about those infected and deaths were of low quality. Key factors like R0 in the US urban and rural areas could not be meaningfully estimated. And the models were themselves unreliable for use with COVID-19.
There was little analysis
Making public policy requires a comparison of costs and benefits. Costs including suffering and deaths. Leaders cannot believe that lives are priceless or of infinite value. Most large public infrastructure projects produced a toll of workers crippled and killed. Decisions about safety levels of transportation (e.g., cars, highways, aircraft) systems mean balancing monetary costs vs. lives. The process is the same for managing wars and epidemics. Since these are rarer, decision-makers must be shown the economic and human cost of past epidemics in US history.
Also, decision-makers have to be told the effects of bold actions to mitigate the epidemic. Bankruptcies mean lives blighted. Schools closed for long periods mean lives blighted (mostly among children of the poor, since the gap between them and the upper classes will widen even further). Putting the economy into a coma will make the poor poorer. Also, on past experience – the gap between the rich and poor will widen, with costs (perhaps large) to be paid in the future.
Producing this information in a coherent form requires a competent staff, able to tap America’s large pool of experts. This means producing a briefing of perhaps ten or twenty pages and a few hours in length.
There were not formal recommendations
In my decades of experience in corporations and Scouting I found that there is magic in people’s signatures. Voting for the Declaration of Independence was fun, signing it was a commitment (see details about the signing). There are no leaders on a Scouting trek without their signatures on a Tour Permit (it creates a burden of responsibility and the change in behavior is like magic). People will sagely nod during committee discussions, but snap to attention when required to make a formal vote.
I doubt that there was a formal advisory committee making formal recommendations with signatures of those agreeing and dissenting.
If this all ends badly, either from the effects of COVID-19 or an economic depression, I doubt that historians will easily determine responsibility. This is a feature, not a bug, to those involved. Responsibility is assigned and seldom spontaneously sought.
Harsh Questions will eventually be asked
I suspect politicians were most influenced by horrific predictions by models of mass deaths from an unmitigated epidemic. These cannot be disproved by the experience in most nations, who took different kinds of strong defensive actions. This is like Y2K, in one sense. The US spent roughly $200 billion (in today’s dollars) to prepare. Yet nations that did little to prepare suffered no ill effects.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic continues, questions are already being asked. Some nations doing little, like Sweden, are doing OK when considering the costs they have avoided. Ditto the poor and crowded nations of South Asia (see this article).
The models will eventually be rerun with more accurate data, reflecting a wide range of national mitigation policies. Eventually, we will know the economic cost of the lockdown. From the early days, I predicted it would create a depression (details in this March post). Now I wonder if it will be catastrophic for America.
This might have big consequences for scientists and our leaders. Or perhaps not. In ClownWorld America we might just blame it all on China, start a Cold War, which accidentally goes hot, and creates new problems which erase today’s ills from our memory. Who remembers the repeated severe crises in the decade before 1914, whose ignored lessons led to that disaster?
Lessons for Climate Change
COVID-19 provided a test for our ability to respond to a crisis that we saw only through the eyes of scientists. It has been run by ClownWorld rules, just as we have handled climate change. But we can learn from this experience. Its lessons can help us better deal with climate change the perhaps worse threats that lie ahead in the 21st century.
Posts about COVID-19
- Hidden news about the epidemic sweeping across America! – Fake news drives out good news.
- A devastating epidemic spreads across America – An epidemic of panic and ignorance.
- The info superhighway makes us stupid about COVID-19.
- Blaming China soothes an America fighting COVID-19.
- Lessons for America from COVID-19.
- We can’t defeat our foes because we cannot see them.
- COVID-19 is a harsh teacher. Let’s learn from it.
- COVID-19 reveals the greatest threat to America.
For More Information
See “The chaotic government response to coronavirus is closer to the failures of 1914 than the determination of 1940” by Patrick Cockburn in The Independent.
To see successful leadership from the White House during a crisis, look at JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. See the book Vietnam If Kennedy Had Lived: the Virtual JFK, or documentary film version.
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Reforming America: steps to a new politics, about propaganda, about the importance of clear vision, and especially these…
- See the ugly cost of the next big flu pandemic. We can do more to prepare.
- Stratfor: The superbugs are coming. We have time to prepare.
- Posts debunking the hysteria about the 2009 swine flu in America.
- Posts debunking the hysteria about the 2015 ebola epidemic in America.
- Important: A vaccine against the fears that make us weak.
A medieval city defeats a plague
By John Henderson (2019), professor of Italian renaissance history at U of London.
I strongly recommend reading this fascinating review of it in the London Review of Books, with its great excerpts. From the publisher …
“Plague remains the paradigm against which reactions to many epidemics are often judged. Here, John Henderson examines how a major city fought, suffered, and survived the impact of plague. Going beyond traditional oppositions between rich and poor, this book provides a nuanced and more compassionate interpretation of government policies in practice, by recreating the very human reactions and survival strategies of families and individuals.
“From the evocation of the overcrowded conditions in isolation hospitals to the splendor of religious processions, Henderson analyzes Florentine reactions within a wider European context to assess the effect of state policies on the city, street, and family. Writing in a vivid and approachable way, this book unearths the forgotten stories of doctors and administrators struggling to cope with the sick and dying, and of those who were left bereft and confused by the sudden loss of relatives.”