During the early days of the COVID-19 risk management disaster, I noted how farmers do more to protect their livestock than Western governments have done to protect their elderly in nursing homes from the horrible consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
Why is that?
For a farmer, every cow, pig, chicken and egg has an economic value; failure to manage risks leads to financial losses so applying risk reduction measures and protecting livestock from diseases while promoting animal health is common sense.
For a government risk manager, old people are a massive financial burden on the state in pensions, healthcare, non-productive care-sector labour and resources; having the inactive, sick and infirm die earlier and restore a more balanced demographic is common sense.
If you think this is distastefully dystopian, and that no one would ever consider such a (final) solution (especially on the great generation that fought for our freedom in World War II), then the only other view to take is that our government risk managers are complete idiots who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing (… and we all know how that is not true, come now).
If businesses and farmers face consequences when risk management fails, even jail-time, shouldn’t this also apply to our government officials when they fail? Regulatory risk managers should be made accountable for the consequences of their decisions.
Why don’t we? And how could we?
But People have Dignity
You would want to think that all people have intrinsic worth (dignity) and should not have an economic price put on them like livestock. Indeed, dignity is at the core of all human rights and is referenced in the first lines of almost every institutional rights charter and constitution. Mind you, dignity is a bit of a fluffy concept that means different things to different actors. To play with Orwell: all people have dignity but some people have more dignity than others.
Many Western governments have not taken their role as the guarantor of the dignity of humanity seriously – they have lost their capacity to manage risks, to protect their populations and provide the goods and services to ensure a quality of life. So as regulators don’t feel accountable for the consequences of their failures and their influencers are only interested in their own campaigns, perhaps we should impose an economic (cost-benefit) risk management approach until our risk managers relearn how humanity needs to be protected for its own sake.
In January, 2020, when it was clearly known how COVID-19 had a much greater impact on the elderly population, responsible leaders should have stood up and claimed that humanity had to do everything within its power to protect those most vulnerable and then implement a strategy. This should have been done well in advance of the Life Care Center tragedy in Kirkland, WA (already well-known in February). Instead, most Western leaders from the UK to the US, Croatia to Sweden, did nothing to protect the most vulnerable until it was too late and extraordinarily large numbers of our elderly died from the COVID-19 coronavirus. Some, like the UK, had regulators moving chronic-care patients out of overflowing hospitals, sending sick, untested people into nursing homes – institutions they had failed to provide with sufficient PPE (even as late as June, 2020). If the elderly, our parents, had been attributed a worth, this would have been considered a crime against humanity. I suppose some people have more dignity than others.
While the incapacity and ineptitude of government risk managers only became evident with COVID-19, the reality is that our regulators fail on a regular basis and as a result millions die every day … but government officials are rarely held accountable. The reason they feel the buck stops somewhere else has evolved following years of regulatory reliance on the precautionary principle and their confusion of precaution with prevention. If they refuse to competently manage risks, they should be held accountable.
Failure has Consequences
Government officials, our risk managers, don’t seem to feel they need to be held accountable for risk management failures. If, for example, a company left a volatile chemical in a warehouse for six years, poorly protected, and its explosion kills hundreds, injures thousands and causes massive economic and social hardship, everyone in the decision chain would be fired on the spot (and likely do jail-time) if they did not have the integrity to fall on their sword and resign. Why do our policymakers feel they are not to be judged in the same way?
The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, had failed to use the policy tools at her disposal in the early days of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Rather than mobilising European resources, providing a risk management strategy and procuring and distributing much-needed resources, she sat on her hands and watched as Italy struggled to contain the virus, European governments sealed borders and fought over resources and emergency funding. While von der Leyen did apologise (generically) for failing Italy, she did not accept any responsibility for her inaction. And at a time when economies were collapsing under the debilitating lockdowns, Ursula re-emerged from her hiatus and continued, business as usual, to obsessively promote her Green Deal which will further stifle European innovation and recovery. It is not even remarkable that the unelected von der Leyen still has her job at the head of an institution she seems hell-bent on delegitimising. No one has ever suggested Ursula should resign for her incapacity to serve the interests of the European people. Unaccountability institutionalised.
2. Starving the bees
When organic food industry-funded lobbyists concocted a bee-pocalypse and declared a group of systemic pesticides as the source, the European Commission struck a political deal with France and imposed a precautionary ban on three neonicotinoids. The ban was done in record time, DG Santé ignored advice from its own science advisers at the JRC whose impact assessment showed that farmers, the environment and bees were suffering from the Commission’s ineffective actions. EFSA was ordered to continue to conduct risk assessments with an unworkable, NGO-influenced draft Bee Guidance Document (which has never been approved by the Member States) leading to wider bans of insecticides even on non-flowering crops like sugar beets. Farmers faced crop failures and pulled multiple crops out of rotation (adversely affecting soil management). Oilseed rape crops were abandoned in many temperate climates leaving bees and other pollinators weakened by the absence of early, abundant flowering crops. The UK, once a large exporter, is now importing oilseed rape like the rest of Europe. This is a colossal risk management failure, but the bill has been picked up by farmers, consumers and the bees. As Ursula von der Leyen continues to push her Green Deal, all indications are that further pesticides will be taken off the market leading to higher prices and more food insecurity at a time when economies and consumers are struggling following the coronavirus risk management failures. While all of this is known, and even the French government has backtracked on their little “Neonic Oopsie”, there has been zero accountability for this risk management failure.
3. Where were you when the lights went out?
During summer swelter, the rich in Europe turn on their air conditioners, the poor have their power cut off and pray for rain. The inability of Western leaders to guarantee their citizens access to affordable energy, a societal good that every EU citizen should have a right to in the 21st Century, is indicative of a serious risk management failure. Following the tsunami that hit the Fukushima nuclear reactor, Angela Merkel caved to the relentless BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) campaign to decommission all German nuclear reactors (rather than strengthen risk reduction measures). Germany now burns more coal, imports (nuclear) energy and has created an energy impoverished class of at least 300,000 homes. This in the wealthiest country in Europe. In California, years of failure to invest in infrastructure and the closure of natural gas power plants have led to two significant statewide power outages this year (the most recent being during a stifling heatwave). Such situations have enormous consequences on the most vulnerable, but sadly there is no accountability for the failed risk managers.
The Pretension of Precaution
All of these cases of risk management failures that have gone blissfully blameless are due to the use of the precautionary principle with a unique corollary that consequences don’t matter. “Better safe than sorry” does not consider any question of being right or wrong; facts are replaced by the emotion of precaution and the pretence that whatever got us to this point of uncertainty was the problem. We are running away from something bad; “where we are running to” is not a question to consider.
I have written for a good part of the last year about what I call the “poison of precaution” – the strategy that all you have to do when faced with risks or challenges is ban, prohibit or disallow certain substances, goods or practices. This has created a risk-averse “docilian” mindset in a population that feels that they could be kept safe from any uncertainty by simply stopping anything they did not want. This indicates the pretension of precaution: when people operate on the belief they would never have to face any consequences from poor risk management decisions.
I cannot think of one situation where a precautionary regulatory decision was held up to ex-post scrutiny and faced consequences. Precaution is held to a different standard (seeking safety amidst uncertainty) which may account for the attraction of such an expedient policy tool. But consequences from the poor use of the precautionary principle do matter (people are dying, consumers are suffering, food insecurity is rising) and our regulatory risk managers should pay a price. But what sort of price? And by whom?
Off with their heads
Who shall pay the price for massive corona-cull of our elderly (in most countries, exceeding 50% of the COVID-19 death-toll)? Who will be accountable for the pollinator decline and the inability of farmers to provide food security from the failed neonic ban? Who will step up and admit responsibility for denying large (poorer) populations access to affordable energy? … What? … Nobody?
- Should we toss the scientific advisers in jail for bad advice, like what happened to the six Aquila seismologists (later cleared)? That would prevent scientists from giving honest viewpoints in the face of uncertainty.
- Should we fire every risk manager who fails? I fear we would have no civil servants left. Some consider failure from political-coloured spectacles. Activists are furious, for example, that the French government recognised its failure and has applied a derogation for neonicotinoid use for sugar beets (and perhaps maize). French NGOs have turned on the new French environment minister who had once supported the ban.
- Should we make the risk managers liable for financial restitution for their failures? In the US, the personal injury (tort) legal system is designed to hold individuals accountable (but in most cases, not governments or public institutions). But as SlimeGate research has shown, these Predatorts are only interested in extracting higher fees so it is unlikely that accountability or victims’ rights would ever be promoted. Taxes would merely go up on consumers to cover litigation insurance.
None of these options are attractive but that does not mean we should just shrug our shoulders and accept that our leaders are both incompetent and unaccountable. Nor should we jump to demanding revolution and installing citizen panels of non-specialists.
Post Hoc Swords
We should, rather, take a page from David Gee’s playbook. When Gee crafted precaution’s reversal of the burden of proof in his Late Lessons from Early Warnings, he imposed a process that demanded, a priori, certainty and safety. It even became “sloganised”. During REACH discussions it was called “No data, no market”. But there was no process for the imposition of the precautionary principle, no mandatory impact assessment, no ex-post or post hoc analysis to assess the damage of precautionary measures.
As discussed in the Blueprint for a Risk Management Process for the 21st Century, precaution should be applied if risk management has failed to reduce risk exposures to a reasonable degree. There should also be an impact assessment process prior to the imposition of precaution so the consequences of the loss of benefits and the potential risk reduction measures are taken into consideration. Regulatory impact assessments are rarely done today and with the precaution-first reflex, there needs to be some post hoc analysis with teeth – one that can attribute accountability when risk managers fail to prevent horrible consequences.
There should be an independent impact assessment body to consider what the risk managers knew at the time of the decision and whether alternative risk reductions measures could have been taken to protect societal goods. Were the activist fear campaigns and lobbying endeavours excessively exaggerating uncertainties? Was there time to gather further evidence? Precaution is an expedient policy tool but it should not be considered blameless.
This post-hoc body should also recommend action plans: financial restitution for victims, policy reevaluations, structural adaptions, demands for resignations – everything that risk managers who are held accountable in the private sector must accept. Of course regulators are free to ignore such recommendations but assuming an independent impact assessment body is more trusted than the government, this would not be wise.
Ideally such a body should be brought in prior to precautionary measures rather than ex-post. In certain chemical value chains, for example, even a precautionary whiff is enough for skittish supply chains to retool with less-tested alternatives. But given how endemic the precautionary poison has spread among regulators, the first measure to address is the introduction of some level of accountability.
How would such a body have held risk managers accountable in the precautionary failures mentioned above?
- In the case of DG Santé’s precautionary ban of neonics, the JRC impact assessment was ignored by Commissioner Andriukaitis (claiming it was a study rather than a report … that needed … well … further study). If it were an autonomous report, the European Commission would not be able to ignore the negative consequences of its failed pesticide risk management policy. Would the EU have to reverse the bans, abandon the draft Bee Guidance Document and compensate European farmers and consumers? In a real world where regulators are accountable: Yes!
- With the German precautionary shutdown of its nuclear reactors post-Fukushima, a risk assessment would have put the probability of a ten-metre high tsunami hitting Germany into context, relative to the means to manage exposures, alternative energy availability and the risks of creating an energy impoverished population. A simple impact assessment process would have prevented such a disastrous decision (if they had bothered).
- On COVID-19, an independent impact assessment body would analyse what was known about the threats to the most vulnerable people back in January-February, what was done to reduce their exposure to risks and what should have been done. Those who decided to empty the hospitals, sending untested patients into nursing homes will have to testify. Those who failed to firewall these homes or provide staff with sufficient PPE will need to justify their decisions. This body would be able to ascertain blame, propose protective measures to reduce further loss of life, recommend compensation and hold those responsible accountable for this colossal risk management failure.
So in short, von der Leyen’s feeble apology to Italy was nowhere near enough. There is a sword on Place Schuman with her name on it. Ursula knows what to do but it is unheard of for a President of the European Commission to willingly accept responsibility. If only there were a body to enforce accountability. One that could wield such a sword.