The Risk-Monger understands that his articles can be long and he often includes a special lexicon with novel vocabulary to develop his ideas. Concerning two related articles, I was asked to just republish several key points so it can be more widely read and understood how the precautionary COVID-19 lockdowns were not risk management at all, but rather a result of the failure and incapacity of western risk managers. It is urgent to understand how ill-prepared our risk managers have been as we are falling into deeper, more serious crises including famines, a deep economic depression and supply chain collapse. It is urgent to understand how we need to stop the activists demanding even more precaution and more lost social benefits in the post-COVID-19 world.
How the Precautionary Principle works
While there are many definitions of the precautionary principle, its most common expression today claims that a practice, substance or technology must be banned or prohibited if it cannot be proven (with certainty) to be safe. Some celebrated precautionary actions include Germany’s shutdown of their nuclear reactors, the EU’s restrictions on GMOs, gene editing and pesticides and bans on plastics with suspected endocrine disrupting potential. Rather than trying to reduce exposure risks or solve problems with innovative technologies, precaution merely stops or restricts anything that cannot be proven to be safe. Precaution demands zero risk.
This has created a precautionary mindset among affluent populations who feel it is better to stop any uncertain activities rather than attempt to manage risks or find innovative solutions. This can best be seen with the Extinction Rebellion response to climate change challenges. Their only proposed response is for society to stop driving cars, eating meat, flying, capitalism, international trade and finance. Precaution has become the main policy tool for the last two decades to the point that this uncertainty management principle has been confused as risk management. Precaution should be what we apply when all efforts at managing a risk have failed.
Take as an example, how risk managers should determine traffic policy in a busy intersection where there have been many accidents or loss of life. Many risk reduction measures could be applied (traffic lights, speed bumps, zebra crossings, pedestrian barriers…); if they had sufficient budget, they could build bridges, walkways, extra lanes or one-way systems. Only after all attempts at reducing risks have failed should precautionary actions then be taken (closing the street or preventing pedestrian access). Given the loss of benefits, precaution should be applied only after risk management measures have failed.
Precaution reflects a culture that demands zero risk (craving the two emotional concepts of safety with certainty). More and more in the West, precaution has become the policy virtue and often the only risk management tool applied. Such was the case in how Western authorities managed the COVID-19 coronavirus. Prior to the waves of lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed on western countries during the second week of March, the authorities (the risk managers) had ten weeks to act to prepare for the worst. So what did they do?
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 management tools had been applied earlier, then a massive loss of social and economic benefits could have been avoided.
Western risk managers, in January 2020, should have applied risk reduction measures including:
- increasing testing infrastructure
- developing an isolation/monitoring/tracking 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.
See an article where I went into each of these points in detail. Sadly many of these measures have not been adequately implemented in May 2020.
Any sensible risk manager will draw up scenarios to determine best practices and action plans. It was clear in January that the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions would suffer disproportionately from this coronavirus. Yet in countries like Belgium, the UK and Sweden little was done to protect these vulnerable populations (and those working with them often have still not been able to access necessary PPE). It is sad to admit in 2020 that chickens in large-scale poultry farms are much better protected from diseases than our parents in nursing homes.
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 (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.
There is no Zero Risk
The zero-risk game (precaution) doesn’t apply with a pandemic. Any death is tragic, but trying to prevent any risk to entire populations via lockdowns (without any other risk management measures) not only failed to protect the most vulnerable, it has led to unthinkable consequences. Banning a pesticide or a plastic in an affluent society can be overlooked or replaced with costly alternatives, but banning all movement, trade and social interaction is something else.
Bjørn Lomborg recently put this madness into context. “If you want to save everyone who dies in traffic, you should just take it (the speed limit) down to 5km per hour. Nobody would die. But of course the point is you don’t want to do that because it also has huge social ramifications.” Globally around 4000 people die every day from car accidents. That number is down significantly due to risk management measures (car safety innovations, road risk reductions, better education and monitoring…). You don’t go nuclear and strangle all benefits with precaution before first trying to manage the risks.
The Nuclear Option: Cancel all Societal Benefits
The precautionary lockdowns were the first and only risk management response to COVID-19 in the West, and it was nuclear.
We need to accept that COVID-19 is a tragedy and many people will die before their time. We have to make decisions to manage this so that the tragic consequences are as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA).
Consider a basic calculation (although the math may change with further data). For every reported American death from COVID-19, around 500 Americans have lost their jobs. Now using a “Pittsburgh calculation” from the 1980s steel mill closures, how many of those 500 will die from mental health issues or domestic violence? How many will have shortened lifespans (DALYs) due to alcoholism and substance abuse? How many of these unemployed without healthcare will have diseases go undetected? How many of these 500 victims were members of service clubs or donated to charities to help people with disabilities? How will the societal revenue decline affect research and innovation into lifesaving drugs? How many will be homeless when the next lockdown is imposed?
A proper risk management process would consider these factors and likely conclude that 500 is too high of a consequence and seek more reasonably achievable risk reduction measures than jumping directly to the nuclear option. Our present risk managers, after doing nothing for ten weeks, used precaution to try to control the virus with a massive lockdown … they did not consider any other consequences. Are they capable of managing the risks of the coronahunger? What about the consequences of the financial reckoning?
Heaven help us if we don’t reject these risk-averse precautionistas and fix this mess.