Our Western leadership has failed miserably at managing the risks of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Not one government in Europe or the Americas can claim a single success in protecting their populations not only from the pandemic but from the consequences of their botched lockdown measures. The bumbling, stumbling farce that has become our government reactions could be likened to the Keystone Kops: falling all over themselves, frenetically failing and getting up to trip once again. For my 2020 year-end review, I am cataloguing many of the KeystoneCorona crises caused by the failure of our authorities to implement basic risk management tools.
The third episode looks at how most Western authorities had no risk management strategy, in part because they did not understand how to manage risks. I end by listing ten simple things they should have done in early 2020 that could have prevented a lockdown or lessened the impact. These are all points I mentioned early in the year but were not implemented by our KeystoneCorona risk managers.
Western risk managers provided little to no risk reduction measure in the ten weeks prior to the lockdowns across Europe in mid-March, 2020. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not even mention COVID-19 in her first major global speech just one week before the Italian healthcare system collapsed and two weeks before the EU’s internal borders were closed (she was asleep at the wheel and frankly too obsessed with building a legacy around her signature Green Deal). By the end of February, two months after the virus was identified, if Europe’s leadership had even a modicum of understanding of what risk management was about, they would have been frenetically reducing exposures to ensure European citizens’ health and welfare were adequately predicted. Ursula had no strategy then and I question whether, ten months on, she has any further ideas beyond posturing empathetic platitudes.
So what is a risk management strategy that our leaders (Europe’s risk managers) should have implemented? In May I laid out seven steps in an article when I had come to the conclusion that so many people had no idea what risk management entailed.
Risk management involves building scenarios to understand threats, developing risk reduction measures to preserve societal benefits and prevent serious consequence from hazardous exposures. Back in February, 2020, it was clear to Western health policy officials that certain vulnerable populations needed to be protected (mainly the elderly in nursing homes), the public should have been better informed and empowered and solutions should have been provided to reduce exposure to as low as reasonably achievable (while preserving public goods). Instead most Western leaders did nothing until the virus spread to levels that threatened healthcare systems in March and then forced entire populations into lockdown.
But What Could we have Done?
I regularly hear people say: “We just could not have seen this coming!” or “It was a “black-swan” event.” Nonsense! What you did not see coming was that as regulators, you needed to do your jobs, envision scenarios and prepare for the worst. I had seen this after a trip to Asia in January. Shortly after, I wrote that this virus could be very serious (and added that Europeans had better get used to wearing facemasks). Sorry but anyone who understands risk management could and did see that in January. The bumbling Keystone Kops asleep at the wheel in Brussels did nothing and their colossal failure to act in those first, crucial months demands a full investigation (to which I would gladly testify).
It was not until May (or even June) before most European countries could even provide nursing and care homes with strategies and sufficient PPE. Developing a system to monitor the spread of the virus took even longer. And what about getting around to enforcing the idea of mask-wearing? Well … it was a KeystoneCorona moment that came too pathetically late.
Farmers are born risk managers waking up every day to challenges threatening their livelihoods. A livestock farmer knows how to prevent a herd from infection and takes the necessary risk reduction measures to protect them. Isn’t it a sad indictment that our Western leaders treat their elderly population (the “Great Generation” that fought in World War II) with less respect than farmers treat their cows, pigs and chickens?
Lockdowns should have been the last resort when the other risk reduction measures had failed to protect their populations. Instead, this precautionary measure was the first policy impulse when leaders were faced with a risk situation. The consequences of this rapid, Keystone-implemented lockdown, affecting the economy, education and trade while increasing mental health, domestic violence and substance abuse was truly tragic. How could these decision-makers have been so ignorant? For the last 20 years, ever since David Gee launched a hazard-based version of the precautionary principle in Europe, policymakers have grown fat and lazy from the overuse this suppressive tool of inaction.
European authorities confused this uncertainty management tool with proper risk management. Ursula should have resigned her post as Commission President for her lack of leadership in a time of crisis. Instead, myopic-driven, she is still pushing forward with her expensive Green Deal as European economies teeter.
Ten COVID-19 Risk Management Steps (to Prevent Lockdowns)?
Many people on social media have expressed their wish for the Risk-Monger to just shut up! “The lockdowns were necessary”, they argue, “and saved millions of lives”. They weren’t interested in listening to some insignificant blogger point fingers from his comfortable (albeit dusty) basement with the luxury of hindsight.
Well … if it were hindsight, I would agree.
Observing early on the near total lack of risk management capacity in most Western governments, I started to write prescriptive advice in February on what needed to be done to save lives and protect well-being – not just from the virus, but from the results of the lockdown: mental health challenges, domestic violence, substance abuse and economic / supply chain chaos. I mapped out a Blueprint for rebuilding risk management (in seven chapters). Risk management is not rocket science, but when we are led by a band of farcical Keystone Kops who think simply applying the precautionary principle is all that governance requires, I would be happy if they just had some basic science.
The lockdowns were not necessary (or should not have been so severe) if basic risk management tools had been properly applied in a timely manner. Nothing was done until the situation was out of control and lockdowns were the only option. In early 2020, I was calling for the following risk management actions:
- As vulnerable populations (eg, elderly and those with comorbidities) were identified early into the Wuhan crisis, firewalls should have been set up in Western countries around nursing homes and with those in contact with vulnerable populations.
- Risk reduction measures to prevent public contact (door handles, buttons, touchscreens …) should have been introduced in the period leading up to mid-March.
- A QR-code tracking system like that introduced in China in February should have been initiated to ensure that those exposed could be traced and tested rapidly and securely.
- European authorities needed to have been investing in PPE production means rather than waiting for Asian suppliers to come back to work. In the end, people were forced to teach themselves how to make PPE on the Internet and nurses were bringing their ski goggles to work.
- The public needed to be spoken to like adults and told how to ensure they could survive infection rather than being given false promises they would be safe (if they had just washed their hands). The public needed to be made “immuno-ready”.
- In February I wrote how Europeans would have to get used to wearing facemasks (not to protect themselves but to avoid spreading the virus to others).
- Spraying disinfectants on populations could have helped slow the spread.
- Have a wide variety of advisers from different scientific branches (rather than being surrounded by public health experts who could only offer precautionary lockdowns as the single strategy).
- Scenarios have to examine a broad range of consequences before authorities rush into total lockdowns.
- Public trust with honest engagement should have been developed rather than Docilian reassurance.
Once again, these ten points I wrote about (many before the spring lockdowns) were not rocket science but basic risk management. The measures were either not taken at all or implemented very late (and poorly). So many people did not have to die (and then the poorly organised lockdown measures caused even more death and suffering). These deaths were not caused by the coronavirus but by incompetent, Western authorities who could not manage risks.
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