My last two articles have highlighted the failures of risk management in the ten weeks leading up to the Western COVID-19 lockdowns where over-reliance on the precautionary principle has left our authorities with limited options leading to a massive denial of social benefits with unfathomable consequences. I want to turn to a more detailed assessment of how risk managers failed with the hope that, once COVID-19 becomes part of history, we will have learnt something. While the horrors of the devastation is still raw, we need to prepare a blueprint for tomorrow. This first section looks at how the precautionary principle failed to function as a credible risk management tool. Part 2 will look at how we can become risk resilient even when our risk managers fail us (how we can perform a “Docilian Detox”). Part 3 will lay down the groundwork for a robust risk management strategy post-COVID-19 to ensure that Western societies will never be left so vulnerable in future again.
This didn’t have to happen.
Ten weeks wasted! As the COVID-19 coronavirus spread throughout Asia in early 2020, Western risk managers did nothing. They hoped … they watched … they told the public to wash their hands. In almost every Western country, no credible risk reduction measures were implemented until it was too late, the outbreak was out of control and lockdowns were the only option. The authorities had either lost the licence or the capacity to act (until they were overwhelmed). And their only practical risk regulatory tool, the precautionary principle, was not fit for purpose.
How did precaution fail? How did we get to such a state where precaution has become our only risk management tool?
A Precaution Primer
Precaution is a tool that should only be applied when risk management efforts do not succeed (not instead of it). It must not be confused with risk management. It would be best to start with several examples:
- If a large number of people are dying from car accidents in a certain intersection, risk managers should try to introduce risk reduction measures (speed bumps, barriers, lights …) to protect the users. They should not resort to precaution (banning cars in the intersection or shutting the road down) until all risk management measures have been taken.
- If mobile phone technologies were seen to put users at risk of certain cancers, the phone manufactures would need to reduce the EMF exposure levels. If they failed, then regulators might have to consider banning mobile phones or restricting use to protect vulnerable populations.
Nobody wants to ban cars or mobile phones and give up their benefits thus we manage the risks rather than take precaution.
In the last two decades though, particularly in the EU, it has become more a strategy of “Apply precaution first – don’t even consider risk reduction measures.”
Precaution’s demand for safety and certainty
While there are many definitions of precaution, the European Union has applied what can be called the David Gee version which reverses the burden of proof. Articulated in the European Environment Agency’s 2001 Late Lessons from Early Warnings tome, this activist version of the precautionary principle states that unless you can prove, with certainty, that a product, process or substance is safe, then you must take precaution. Certainty and safety are emotional, subjective concepts which are very hard for scientists to satisfy.
More difficult is that this categorical “guilty until proven innocent” approach does not even leave room for risk reduction measures. If individuals or the environment are potentially exposed to hazards, the substance or process would be banned before any risk reduction strategy could be implemented. Precaution short-circuits the risk management process.
- After a tsunami hit Fukushima, the German government did not check if their nuclear reactor risk management strategy was robust enough. Under pressure from the anti-nuke movement, they pushed the precaution button within three months, abandoning nuclear power (which provided 22% of Germany’s energy) and since creating hundreds of thousands of energy impoverished Germans.
- When a large number of bees died due to a case of dust from one poor planting procedure, rather than applying certain application regulations to reduce the risks to bees, the European Commission rushed through a precautionary ban on a group of neonicotinoids (to appease French greens and organic food industry lobbyists). Now bees are suffering from consequences from older, more toxic foliar pesticide applications and the reduction of pollen-rich crops being grown.
- In recent years, many EU regulations have become hazard-based (chemicals, biocides, pesticides) meaning that exposure levels do not even come into consideration. If a chemical cannot be proven to not be, for example, an endocrine disruptor (regardless how low the exposure may be), then the substance will be taken off the market (regardless of any risk reduction measures).
European policy (mostly led by green activists) came to rely on precaution as the main means to protect citizens from uncertainty. There was no issue of the effects of lost benefits – Europeans were promised a world of food without pesticides, energy without nuclear reactors and products that were “chemical free” and any regulator who did not guarantee it, or tried to protect certain technologies with risk management measures, paid dearly.
A tool to handcuff science and innovation
Scientists and innovators have been excluded from public dialogue in precaution debates. The public didn’t want technological solutions; they demanded that the bad things be taken away. In 2019 when the public believed humanity would go extinct in ten years from climate breakdown and ecosystem collapse, no large populations were calling out for more nuclear energy, scientific solutions or innovative technologies – they wanted to ban flying, ban cars, ban meat. And if the authorities did not take these perceived threats away, Extinction Rebellion would overthrow the state.
Activists have also used their sword of precaution to handcuff healthcare innovations. We have limited research in gene editing, tried to sideline medical device technologies and made it uneconomical to develop new generations of antibiotics. I’m still weakened by a 14-month battle against multiple organ infections where most courses of antibiotics given to me were 30-40 years old and the only policy position our risk managers were taking was to reduce our use of these life-saving drugs (“Just say No!”). These disgraceful cult elitists campaigned for a world without pharmaceutical companies – I wonder how they feel now. These precautionary zealots were moving toward a plastic-free world not considering how our doctors and nurses relied on plastics to deliver healthcare – I wonder if they require medical support now.
So weak regulators (our risk managers) used precaution as an expedient tool to give the activists whatever they wanted (so they would stop their relentless campaigns and leave them alone). Expediency is the art of making something go away and the precautionary principle was the perfect policy tool. Until the COVID-19 body-blow.
A Rude Awakening from our Precautionary Slumber
This risk-averse, expedient precautionary mindset was unprepared for the COVID-19 crisis.
The social and economic benefits that were being taken away were suddenly not someone else’s and this created a new type of actionable fear. The naturopaths and activists were marketing luxury fears the public could no longer afford. But it took a long time for these communities to to be freed from this docilian nerve pinch, wasting valuable weeks of COVID-19 risk preparations from January to March.
Despite loud warnings from Mike Ryan at the WHO, for two months the public wanted to hear that things were fine and that this only affected one province in China. The main risk management action taken in January was to track people who had visited the Wuhan region. In February few were watching the WHO daily briefings. By the beginning of March, Italy was added to that list of restricted regions but precaution was still not considered necessary and most Western risk managers did not have any other tools their populations were willing to accept … so the docilians slept well.
When one of the wealthier regions of Europe, Northern Italy, suddenly had its healthcare system overwhelmed, people woke up. But the only tool at our disposal, the precautionary principle, was woefully inadequate for risk management. By the middle of March, entire populations in Europe went from no action (no risks) to voluntary isolation (no worries) and then to mandatory lockdown (no choice) in a matter of days. This is the only way a precautionista could manage a risk – say “No!” to normal societal activities. Every public space shut, every event cancelled, families separated, borders shut practically overnight. Economies have been strangled, domestic violence increased and mental health issues escalated overnight. And if social distancing and confinement does not work, having already played the precautionary card, the only alternative is … more, stricter lockdowns.
How Precaution Failed
The precautionary principle is not a risk management tool – it is simply uncertainty management. The difference has to do with the objective. Risk management attempts to protect its citizens by reducing exposure to hazards while providing benefits and social goods; uncertainty management protects citizens by making the hazard go away by banning a product or stopping an activity.
See my detailed analysis of the difference between a risk-based policy approach versus the precautionary hazard-based approach.
For example, today there is great uncertainty (hazard) in the stock markets. A risk manager would look at the exposure to hazards (risk) and try to reduce them (perhaps a variety of investment vehicles, currencies, hedges …)with an eye on still generating benefits despite the volatility. An uncertainty manager, however would take all of the money out of the market (often at the bottom of the market when uncertainty was at its highest) and put it into cash (at 0.01% interest) – benefits don’t matter compared to the fear of uncertainty. Now there may be times that exposure to market risks are so great that precaution is the best measure, but that should only come after a certain level of risk reduction measures have been applied. Good risk managers like Warren Buffet make most of their money in times of uncertainty and volatility.
How precaution failed on COVID-19
As risk managers in China, South Korea and Singapore were applying risk reduction measures to address their coronavirus outbreaks, as they were providing proper PPE for their front-line medical staff, as they were increasing detection and testing methods and isolating victims, European and American authorities did little more than reassure their populations they were safe. There were no risk reduction measures in the West except to monitor those who had travelled to the affected regions.
By the time Western European countries woke up, when Italian hospitals were suddenly overwhelmed, it was too late. The one remaining tool, a tool of last resort (the precautionary principle), was the only way the risk managers could respond: reduce the crisis by locking down entire populations. The lockdowns are precautionary: until you can prove with certainty that it is safe (for the entire society) to go out, then you need to stay in your home. If proper risk reduction measures had been applied early, then a massive loss of social and economic benefits could have been avoided.
My last article looked at risk management alternatives that should have been applied in those ten weeks before Northern Italy was overwhelmed. Western risk managers, in January 2020, should have applied risk reduction measures including:
- increasing testing infrastructure
- developing an isolation/monitoring process
- preparing their healthcare systems
- sharing resources, retooling industries
- building firewalls to protect the most vulnerable populations
- removing structural means for the virus to propagate quickly
- implementing a massive public awareness campaign giving citizens the means to prepare themselves.
Risk management can be done at all levels. Singapore restaurant owners have installed thermal scanners at the entrance in order to help contain the outbreak. In early February, in the Philippines, a developing country, I was getting my forehead zapped to check for fever before I would be allowed to enter a mall or office building. Meanwhile American and European leaders fiddled, merely reassuring the public they would be safe if they washed their hands.
Flattening the Failure
Like other precautionary measures, the lockdowns are practically useless from a risk management perspective. Sorry to be blunt, but these Western lockdowns are not about protecting the public from COVID-19 at all (what risk managers would be tasked to do). The lockdowns are about protecting the healthcare systems from collapsing from unthinkably large numbers requiring ICU beds and ventilators at the same time. Flattening the curve means fattening the curve: allowing the virus to infect more slowly with the hope that some lives could be saved.
The only real risk management strategy coming out of the lockdowns is to wait for herd immunity: either with a vaccine to be developed (hopefully in less than 18 months) or, in the meantime, to wait for herd immunity to arrive through the survival of the fittest (with perhaps hundreds of millions dying).
Applying the precautionary principle, with COVID-19, is just one step above doing nothing at all.
Precautionary lockdown measures are merely meant to slow the deadly consequences of failure; slow the failed risk management strategy so fewer people would die outside of overwhelmed hospitals. Our leaders, Western risk managers, are incapable of offering any other solutions.
The vulnerable populations in Western societies deserved better than this. This didn’t have to happen.
Precaution: A policy principle for prosperity
Our Western precautionary mindset created an entitled public assuming benefits without risks, no compromises and simple solutions to complex problems. Growing fat from affluence, our populations expect any uncertainty to be managed simply and surely by removing the source of the problem without any need to consider consequences or lost benefits.
Over the last two decades, the precautionary principle has been the key means (often only means) to manage any and all hazards in this privileged world without want. Nuclear energy might be a risk? Ban it! Seed breeding technologies have evolved? Not in our food chain. The precautionary principle will save us. We can afford to pay more for renewable energy, organic food and all-natural products. The poor may suffer but they don’t donate to the NGOs pushing precaution and deindustrialisation.
Precaution is a policy principle for prosperity where any lost benefits have limited impact and can be afforded. With no focus on the effects of its consequences, precaution has had a long history of preying on the poor. When the lockdowns were abruptly imposed and large populations lost their jobs, wealthy states could drop cash on their citizens by the trillion. Risk management, on the other hand, is a tool to protect populations from losing benefits and suffering severe consequences. Risk managers would do whatever they could to reduce exposure and prevent a lockdown; they would be able to see in advance how those helicopter trillions would lead to bigger problems long-term.
Precaution: An elitist principle for inequity
Perhaps the most egregious transgression in this weak risk management framework is how the precautionary principle has been exported to developing countries. Many of these countries mirror the EU regulatory decisions either because they lack the risk assessment structure or fear losing export markets. But they lack the prosperity to protect their populations once the consequences of precaution (lost benefits) set in.
In 2017 and again in 2018 I spoke in several South-East Asian countries warning them to not follow the EU precautionary perversion inhibiting agricultural technologies. Without the financial safety net, when smallholders fail due to poor technologies, they would leave the land and any food security for the most vulnerable populations would be lost. Battling the fall armyworm and locusts in East Africa with agroecology and biodynamics is a precautionary pipe dream that will lead to famine.
Now large developing countries from Nigeria to India are locking down their populations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. How do you practice social distancing in a slum with a population density of one million people per square mile? How do you enforce stay-at-home measures when the homes are not safe or enclosed? How do you keep people off the streets when their livelihoods are there and their governments cannot afford helicopter cash? Once again, precaution works for the wealthy and pays no heed to any suffering imposed on the vulnerable.
Precaution’s failure to protect populations from the COVID-19 coronavirus has been spectacular. This principle has been shown to merely be an expedient stain remover for cowardly policymakers pushed into a corner by relentless activist interest groups. Tens of millions of the poorest of the poor will likely die from failed lockdowns with no risk management alternatives, likely unaccounted and likely long after the precautionistas have applauded themselves for saving a few lives in the affluent West.
Lost Benefits, Lost Lives, Lost Leadership
A docilian European public expected to have their risk managers remove any risk and leave them with all of their benefits and social goods. This is perhaps the greatest awakening: that their lives are fragile, they are entitled to nothing without consequences and that they are now left alone having to protect themselves. Even their most valuable assets, healthcare workers, were not given the proper means to protect themselves.
Within two weeks in March 2020, COVID-19 destroyed the docilian normal: an ill-rooted perception of affluent privilege, risk-free benefits and simplistic precautionary solutions. They were suddenly fighting for toilet paper and the necessities to survive as their world got quarantined, uncertain and unprotected.
Precaution is used to make uncertain things go away – it is not a tool to manage risks. Until now, in most cases, Western affluence allowed the consequences of technology bans to be less evident. When Germany banned nuclear energy, they simply bought (nuclear) energy from France. When the EU banned GMOs and most agricultural technologies, they could no longer feed themselves (and now import GMO feed from other countries). The European public needed their fears mollified, were able to pay the price and precaution was the easy pill.
That poison pill is now killing large numbers in the West and its populations are waking up.
The two-dimensional precautionistas were incapable of considering relative risks or anticipating any consequences of precaution (they were told it was always better to be safe than sorry, so bad things could never materialise). The lockdown was the only way they knew to address a threat (without consideration of the threats they then levied on global economies, mental health, domestic violence, the safety of the poor and homeless, the charities supporting vulnerable populations, the reduction of public health and well-being …). Proper risk managers would have thought three dimensionally and would have been aware of these consequences, jumping into action well before the virus overwhelmed the hospitals and left little choice for action.
When this passes, as it surely will, Western risk managers will have no idea how many other cliffs they have driven us off of. Most governments are looking at what to do for the next two weeks, not two months and certainly not two years. The truth is they have been driving blind for the last 20 years only able to portray a veneer of success by the very technologies they now oppose.
This didn’t have to happen.
A Post-COVID-19 Normal?
When the COVID-19 crisis dies down, the activists pushing precaution will go back to work (refocus on banning technology tools our farmers need to grow affordable food, preventing the energy production our even more vulnerable populations require and tightening restrictions on human health and crop protection tools). They will assume that their normal will quickly come back.
I am already seeing environmental NGOs preparing their “greenprints” for a post-COVID world. These relentless opportunistic zealots seek to further weaken society’s capacity to protect itself, increase vulnerability and promote the interests of their rich donors. If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail, but these little bastards are trying, once again, to nail humanity to a cross we can no longer afford to bear.
COVID-19 was the equivalent of a nuclear bomb on our risk management process. Normal is not coming back.