When will we be safe from COVID-19? … If I respect the lockdown, will I be safe? … What disinfectants, soaps and medicines can ensure my safety? … How long do we have to wait before a vaccine will make it safe for us to go out again?
Now just imagine the Risk-Monger in his dusty basement banging his head against his screen and shouting out: “No! No! No! You’re doing it wrong!”
Doing what wrong?
“Everything! There is no ‘safe’!”
The 2020 suffocation of Western society was not due to the COVID-19 coronavirus but to the failure of our risk managers to implement proper tools to protect citizens while ensuring societal goods. Our risk management systems have evolved into a precautionary mindset where an unrealistic public has come to expect and demand to be kept safe and risk-free.
- If a product is not 100% safe, then it must be removed from the shelves.
- If you cannot prove with certainty that a substance does not cause endocrine disruption, then it is banned.
- If researchers cannot guarantee complete safety from any unknown unknowns from novel gene editing technologies, then it must be disallowed.
Precaution has made the risk management process easy (Just say: “No!” when uncertain) leading to a lazy complacency among regulators (especially in Brussels). The European Union’s use of the precautionary principle (as articulated by the European Environment Agency) simply demands that a product, substance or process be removed or banned if you cannot prove, with certainty, that it is safe.
But nothing is 100% safe.
Despite its inherent contradictions, affluence and good fortune have allowed this precautionary policy perversion to survive as an expedient governance tool for the last two decades. But when the COVID-19 coronavirus spread across Europe and the United States, the weakness of precaution’s assumptions hit home. The public was demanding safety from a pernicious virus often transmitted by asymptomatic superspreaders. The situation was anything but safe and demanded the strongest risk management skills, early and preemptive.
Cowboy Risk Management
Most European Union governments did next to nothing to reduce risk exposures in the ten weeks leading up to the mid-March lockdowns. In this period, when the Chinese and Korean officials were battling their outbreaks, building hospitals, contact tracing, testing, investing in PPE and protecting vulnerable populations, what were Western leaders doing? A short timeline:
February: They were reassuring their populations they would be safe if they just washed their hands.
March: On March 11, when hospitals in Northern Italy became overwhelmed and leaders locked their country down, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted an eerily cheerful “Europe suffers with Italy” message (in Italian). I’m not joking, that was all.
Late March: leaders told their populations they would be safe if they stayed at home (and continued to wash their hands). People were suddenly waking up from their precautionary safety slumber with lost jobs and uncertainty. Then, as death rates mounted and the media tuned in, regulators had no choice but to close their schools and their borders.
April: It became clear overwhelmed hospitals were not prepared and lacked PPE. Where risk managers failed, individuals moved forward: companies were retooling to design and build ventilators; entrepreneurs were using their 3D printers to make face shields for their local hospitals.
May: Decision-makers, noticing rising death rates in nursing homes (something well-known in January in China and Korea), started to deliver more PPE.
June: Some government officials and the WHO confusingly hinted that face masks might help keep people safe (but most governments, five months on, had still not been able to procure sufficient PPE). Citizens were left to themselves to find ways to make their own face coverings.
Not only was this cowboy risk management a significant dereliction of duty, the imposition of lockdown measures paid no attention to the catastrophic economic and societal consequences. What should have been a momentary health risk challenge became a generational destruction of societal well-being.
Western governments seemed to only know how to apply precaution (ie, lockdown societies and stop all activity) to guarantee their citizens could be safe. But nobody was safe. With COVID-19 every failure in the weak precaution-based policy structure cost countless lives. We cannot excuse ourselves and say we could never have known then what we know now. In February I wrote how we need to start wearing face masks in the West (to protect others). In March I was shouting how our authorities needed to build firewalls to protect the vulnerable in nursing homes. By mid-April many governments were noticing mounting death rates there (in Belgium around 50% of the total mortality) and by the end of May action was finally being taken to restrict access to nursing homes and provide staff with PPE. This was shameful and disrespectful. Farmers protect their livestock better than we have treated the generation that fought in World War II.
Precaution could only promise the illusion of safety; it could not keep people safe. “Safe” does not exist … except as an emotional ideal. And while it is easy to blame our failures on leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro and Duterte, our own docilian demands to be kept safe is a product of more than a misinformed despot. As a feeling, the determination of safety is relative to the individual. One individual may feel an activity or substance is safe enough; another may find it deadly dangerous. The only thing individuals share is their desire for “safer” but our leaders had to do more to empower us than to tell us to wash our hands and keep a social distance. Individual risk management skills is a responsibility we need to relearn in the once affluent West.
Risk Management is about “Safer”
Rather than debating what is safe, risk managers are tasked with the iterative process of progressively making the activity, process or substance exposure safer. If, for example, a busy traffic intersection has several accidents, we have to find ways to reduce risks, ensuring a safer means for traffic to flow while allowing the benefits of the road to be utilised. Demanding complete safety would imply banning cars and bicycles from the road.
While the precautionary mindset imposes the dangerously irrational “safe” demand, risk management continuously moves towards “safer”. Applying risk reduction measures means lowing exposures to hazards to as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA). It does not mean 100% safe, but that never was a reasonable expectation (and it was never achievable). Banning all cars from that busy intersection would not be reasonable; building bridges over all intersections might not be achievable.
“Safer” depends on a wide variety of factors and conditions that need to be considered. What a risk manager has to do is consider these factors and make a decision on what level of exposure is reasonable, what is achievable, and from that, work to lower the exposures as much as possible in a continual iterative process.
Ironically, safe is the enemy of safer. When an expedient policymaker imposes precaution, the risk management process is often interrupted. The product or process is removed from the market (so iterating and improving it stops) and too often, older technologies and failed alternatives are brought in as an unfortunate consequence.
Safer Crop Protection Tools
Over the last 50 years, risk managers have been continuously demanding crop scientists reduce our exposure to pesticide residues (to the point where they remain efficient and not a significant risk). Organic food lobby activists demanded zero risk and the banning of all (synthetic) pesticides. In our affluent societies, they felt we could afford to pay more for food without pesticides and that this was achievable. The poor, however, could not afford the high prices, farmers could not continue to lose crops and the food security risks in developing countries created ethical issues. Precaution’s demands for zero pesticides and the rejection of advanced seed breeding technologies was not reasonable and not achievable.
The scientific community has progressively developed safer crop protection tools and technologies so that today the risks are minimal. “We’re not safe!” cry the precautionistas and these advanced technologies are taken off the market leaving farmers with older, less efficient tools, lower food quality and higher risks of food insecurity. Safe is the enemy of safer.
Safer climate technologies
Researchers have been continuously developing lower CO2-emitting technologies in the energy and transportation fields, improving efficiencies in the building sectors and better means to store carbon in agriculture. These reductions at the same time ensured continued quality of life for a growing global population. Well-organised alarmist activist groups demanded zero carbon solutions short-term, insisting an end to cars, meat consumption, conventional agriculture and international business and finance operations. They also have succeeded in limiting the development of second generation nuclear reactors and advanced seed breeding technologies. These precautionary measures were not reasonable in how they affected the quality of life and they have effectively led to an increase in CO2 emissions.
The continuous advances in low carbon technologies in energy, transportation and agriculture have provided us with tools to make our future safer and more sustainable in face of potential climate and ecosystem threats. “We’re not safe!” cry the precautionistas and they demand we abandon the global capitalist systems that have fostered such technological advances, expecting us to give up the societal goods we have come to expect. Safe is the enemy of safer.
(This part is largely fictional since most Western societies no longer have risk management capabilities, and in light of such failure the precautionary zero-risk lock-down strategy was the knee-jerk reaction.)
We have the technologies to perform a high degree of testing, tracking and tracing to control the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. With an efficient supply chain, risk managers are able to procure proper PPE and ensure that first responders and essential front-line medical staff are properly protected. Using technologies farmers have had for decades to protect their livestock from disease outbreaks, the authorities can protect the virus from decimating the most vulnerable populations: those in nursing homes. A well-educated population will be able to adopt certain lifestyle practices to strengthen their immune systems and make themselves safer should the pandemic spread.
“We’re not safe!” cry the precautionistas and they demand a total lockdown of societies, economies and supply chains, leaving humanity more vulnerable to economic, social, psychological and humanitarian stresses than ever before. Safe is the enemy of safer.
This madness did not have to happen if we were not blinded by the precautionary zero-risk mindset and simply managed our risks to as low as reasonably achievable.
But isn’t Precaution Safer?
Now the precautionistas may come back and say that in the face of uncertainty, taking precaution is always the safer choice – better safe than sorry. While hand hygiene and face masks reduce exposure risks, the precautionary leap to full lockdowns needs to be measured against ALARA – is precaution reasonable and achievable? Consequence-blind, precaution implies that the benefits can and should be given up.
- In banning all synthetic pesticides, there is no concern for lost yields, food insecurity or more land going into agriculture.
- In rejecting innovative energy or power-train technologies, the activists have accepted an increase in energy impoverishment and lost quality of life.
- In swiftly locking down societies without first implementing other risk reduction measures, the severe consequences to the economy, mental health, social cohesion, global development and social support for the most vulnerable will profoundly affect the next generation.
None of these precautionary decisions would pass any reasonable and achievable standards; none of them would lead to a safer world. The precautionary demand for safe, in its intransigent irrationality, has led to a less safe world.
Safer is Reasonable; Safer is Achievable
Some risk management tools were applied by Western officials following the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns but months too late and at unfathomable societal and economic costs. Upcoming generations in Western societies will hopefully have better hygiene practices (which should also reduce the number of foodborne illnesses in future). Fewer customary practices like kisses and handshakes with more wearing of face coverings will likely prevent severe disease outbreaks in future. It is all about reducing exposure to as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA). In other words, these social adaptations are both reasonable and achievable.
This generation has learnt an enormous amount about virology, the risks of social contact and the importance of investing in better healthcare. I would hope they are coming to understand how the zero-risk precautionary mindset is both irrational and unachievable. As people struggle with the notion of social distancing, we understand we are not safe. One metre of distance between individuals was the norm, but two metres apart would be safer. Then again 200 metres apart would be safer but that is neither reasonable nor achievable.
Most people are capable of understanding ALARA. It was merely an ill-willed group of activist zealots who pushed the concept of a precautionary principle on a generally expedient regulatory class that has led to a dangerous expectation of zero risk and a docilian mindset dominating the media influencers. A large percentage of this upcoming Western generation has known only affluence and has come to expect to receive everything they want. They sign a petition and donate €2 and expect every bad thing to be taken away. “Poof!” with the simplistic magic wand and we are safe. Precaution was the ideal tool for wish granting, but not for risk management. This spoiled generation will now have to learn that not every demand is achievable; not every wish is reasonable.
Safer is about Exposure
Precaution advocates ignore the possibility that exposures can be managed. They take the hazard-based approach that if there is a hazard, it needs to be removed. For example, if a chemical is hazardous (ie, not safe), it must be taken off the market (regardless of the potential benefits). The risk-based approach is to measure the exposure to a hazard, find the best way to safely manage the risk and as much as possible reduce those exposures. There are many ways to safely manage exposures to a hazardous chemical while enjoying the benefits (Handle with Care!, Keep out of Reach of Children!…).
In the West, the main approach to the COVID-19 threat was hazard-based: to work to avoid any exposure to the coronavirus. So “risk managers” advised people to regularly wash their hands, don’t touch their faces and stay at home – enforcing a tortuous lockdown (regardless of the lost benefits). But in this case, asymptomatic superspreaders of a pernicious virus meant stopping exposure was impossible. There was little advice from authorities on how people could manage the virus should they be exposed (except to self-quarantine … to keep others safe). There was precaution but no risk management.
At Casa Monger, we prepared for our home being exposed to the coronavirus hazard and needed to reduce the risk. This was essential as Mrs Monger had a recent respiratory attack and I have heart disease while just recovering from an 18-month battle with an organ infection. In late January I realised our heightened risk factors in light of the coming storm and we started working hard on rebuilding our health (ie, strengthening our immune systems with the assumption we will likely contract this coronavirus). Five months later, Mrs Monger and myself are stronger, fitter and more able to survive the coronavirus should we be hit. So are we safe? No. But we are safer and we continue to strengthen our health.
It is perfectly reasonable to continuously strengthen our capacity to survive any exposure to the virus. It is perfectly unreasonable to shelter in place with diminished health and pray to be kept safe from exposure.
So don’t just wash your hands … that won’t make you safe. Safe was never a rational option. When your risk managers reassure you on how to be safe from the COVID-19 coronavirus, state the obvious: “You’re doing it wrong!”