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 also 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.
This fifth episode examines how the precautionary principle was the only policy tool applied in managing the COVID-19 crisis and what the consequences were. For the last two decades, most Western authorities had relied on this uncertainty management tool, leaving governments woefully unprepared to manage the risks a pandemic would bring. It is astonishing to think, ten months into the coronavirus crisis, that our officials continue to apply the poison that is killing the patient, continue to run in the wrong direction and continue to miss the need to apply basic risk management tools. What a farce! Just like the episode: “The Keystone Kops meet Pickles and Peppers”, I have to keep asking: Why didn’t they let go of the rope?
What is the Precautionary Principle?
Precaution is a normal human emotional reaction to not act in situations where there may be a threat or uncertainty that might not be contained and where the consequences may be severe. There are countless instances where this reaction is perfectly reasonable, eg, not crossing a busy highway, not consuming food that is clearly off or staying in a safe place during a severe storm. But when precaution is articulated as a policy concept, as a principle, peculiar things start to happen.
There are many definitions of the precautionary principle, but the one effectively guiding European Union applications was defined by the European Environment Agency’s 2001 Late Lessons from Early Warnings. It is often referred to as the “reversal of the burden of proof”: Until you can prove (certainty) that an action, technology, substance or product is safe, it will not be allowed. It is a technique to manage uncertainties out of the policy process.
Precaution is sometimes confused with prevention (taking actions to ensure that negative consequences do not happen) but precaution, following the EEA definition, is designed to pre-empt any hazards – there is no need for preventative actions (which is a part of the risk management process). See image.
What precaution is not is risk management. As uncertainty management, the precautionary principle asks two questions: Is it safe? Yes or No. Are you certain? Yes or No. If you have a negative answer to either question, the activity, substance, technology or product must be stopped or removed. This is decision by denial. In contrast to this, risk management approaches a situation of hazard or uncertainty and asks: What is the level of exposure? Can the hazard exposure be reduced to an acceptable level? What is an acceptable level (and how can we reduce the risks more to improve public safety while securing the benefits)? This risk management (managing exposures and reducing risks) differs from uncertainty management in that precaution is not concerned about preserving the benefits – it’s chief objective is to remove uncertainty.
The Appeal of the Precautionary Principle
The precautionary principle is very attractive to regulators. All that a government authority needs to do is demand 100% safety and certainty (two emotional concepts) and then measure the response. Given that very little in reality is completely safe with certainty, most regulators pull precaution out of a hat to avoid having to make decisions in difficult, controversial situations. They can simply say to the parties involved: Come back to me when you’re certain (and they usually never will). For a policymaker who does not want to be mired in confrontational issues, precaution provides a “Get out of Jail Free” card.
“Better safe than sorry” carries an emotion-laden ploy that turns right and wrong on their heads. It means you are never really wrong when you play the “safe and certain” tactic (just very often “not right”) and in most cases, no one will blame you for the lost benefits and societal consequences – you were taking precaution for the public good (their safety). For a policymaker worried about the lost career opportunities from standing up for some innovative technology that may have negative consequences, precaution provides an easy way out.
As seen in the last section, this concern for safety and public protection adds a layer of virtue to the public official’s posture. Safety and certainty, tied to virtues like sustainability and the sanctity of life, create a moral paradigm that has become an essential element in leadership. For a policymaker seeking to be seen adopting a virtuous posture, precaution provides the perception of a caring concern and commitment to human values.
So if you are lazy, don’t want to be held responsible for the consequences of your actions and wish to virtue signal your way to a moral high ground, then the precautionary principle is very appealing.
The Problem with the Precautionary Principle
There are many difficulties with precaution as a policy principle. First, it creates a mindset that any threat or risk must be addressed by stopping any activity related to the threat (rather than encouraging innovation and ingenuity). This has been called the poison of precaution since it involves freely surrendering the benefits of technologies or activities without thinking of any consequences. For example, if there is an uncertainty from nuclear reactors, the solution is to stop all nuclear energy production (and burn more coal). If there is uncertainty about the safety of certain crop technologies like GMOs and pesticides, the precautionary principle bans them (increasing the risk of famine). The recent death-cult campaign by Extinction Rebellion offered climate solutions like banning cars, eating meat and flying. This precautionary ‘decision by denial’ approach to uncertainty not only stifles innovation, it leads to an exodus of researchers and an ‘ignorantisation’ of society. The United States benefitted from the European biotechnology research emigration waves after the effective GMO ban in the 1990s and the ridiculous classification of gene editing under the restrictive GMO Directive. Under the precautionary principle, not only does fear flourish, but also stupidity stagnates any human endeavour.
Precaution is built on the inherent mistrust of man, technology and innovation. The reversal of the burden of proof is actually a burden of trust. I have no reason to trust you unless you can prove to me with certainty that this is safe (two trust-laden emotional concepts that are insatiable). This burden of proof tells scientists and innovators that they are guilty until proven innocent (and the judge is a technophobic naturopath). Once a substance, action or technology is held under the precautionary spotlight, public fear rips into its reputation. It is no surprise that public trust in science and technology has struggled in the last two decades that precaution has reigned as the main Western policy tool.
The precautionary principle hides behind the “better safe than sorry” mantra which means “safe “overrides facts or questions of being “right” or “wrong”. If a policymaker takes a decision on the basis of precaution to preserve public safety, it is not expected that he or she would be questioned on the consequences. Their interest in protecting populations is virtuous, benign, unquestionable. But consequences do matter and with precaution, when you’re wrong … you’re really wrong. During the Great Plague of London, the authorities took precaution based on the superstition that the cats were spreading the bubonic plague. In killing all of the cats, the rats flourished (as did the plague). Precaution, built on fear, does not think about lost benefits or negative consequences but only about managing away uncertainty. When Germany banned nuclear energy post-Fukushima (because you can never be certain that a 30m high tsunami won’t hit Munich), not only did the German government willingly create hundreds of thousands of energy-impoverished citizens, but the carbon-based alternatives also contributed to a spike in greenhouse gas emissions. How do you spell “stupid”?
I wish I had something positive to say … but it gets worse.
The Perversion of Precaution
Precaution conceived as the reversal of the burden of proof (unless you can prove with certainty that an activity, technology, product or substance is safe, it will not be allowed) essentially perverts the risk management process. A basic risk management approach has many tools that should be applied to reduce exposure to hazards, run scenarios, risk-benefit analyses… If all efforts at managing risks fail, and the hazards are too great, then benefits will have to be sacrificed and precaution applied. Precaution is the safety net when human ingenuity fails. But with the dominant European Environment Agency version of the precautionary principle, there is no risk management process; if you cannot be certain something is safe, fear overrides reasonable analysis. Come back to me when you can prove it’s safe.
Risk management, when faced with a hazard, finds the best way to reduce exposure to that hazard (and continually tries to reduce the exposure more through iterations and refinement). This is the risk-based approach, built on continuous improvement, innovation and enhancement of technologies, solutions and innovations. The precautionary principle is part of the hazard-based approach; when a hazard is identified, the plug is pulled (products or substances banned, activities and technologies prohibited) and research and innovation ceases. There are no risks to manage, fear undermines trust and any potential benefits are lost.
The precautionary principle excludes the possibility to manage risks, excludes the possibility of applying risk-reduction measures, excludes the opportunity to create innovative solutions and, importantly, excludes citizens from enjoying public goods and benefits. What the precautionary principle includes, in the case of COVID-19, is a massive increase in human suffering, unemployment, mental health issues, countless undiagnosed diseases, substance abuse, domestic violence, global supply chain disruption, widespread impoverishment and a high likelihood of famines. As mentioned earlier, when precaution is wrong … it’s really wrong.
With COVID-19 in Europe, there was no risk management process. European countries did nothing for two months and then, in mid-March, with the realisation of a serious threat, most European countries went straight into the precautionary lockdowns. After a summer of dithering, as infection rates started to spike back up, European countries again, like dominos, started subjecting their populations to another round of repressive lockdowns. Even more tragic in this KeystoneCorona farce, when there was a brief pause in the lockdowns, our leaders left their comfortable bunkers and returned to business as usual – pushing more legislation on their coveted Green Deal totem. In other words, applying more precaution.
The Failure of Precaution in the COVID-19 Pandemic
Within two decades of EU policy led by the precautionary principle, European regulatory authorities had lost the capacity to manage risks when the COVID-19 coronavirus caught them unawares.
European risk managers only had one rule they could understand: If there is uncertainty and a threat, then take precaution. When hospitals risked being overwhelmed, the COVID-19 coronavirus threat created uncertainty so stopping the movement of people, goods and services via severe lockdowns was the precautionary solution. The loss of benefits (social, economic and human) did not factor into this ‘better safe than sorry’ approach – managing the uncertainty of hospital capacity from the pandemic was more important than the consequences of their decisions.
There were so many options that risk managers should have considered to prevent dragging populations into the detrimental lockdowns (reducing exposures, introducing tracking tools to limit the spread, protecting the most vulnerable populations, increasing hospital capacity, preparing their populations…). Nothing was done and then most Western authorities fast-tracked into precautionary lockdowns. So many people died under this approach. While the vaccine will hopefully alleviate the situation (by the end of 2021), the precautionary principle would dictate that societies could only exit lockdowns when it can be proven (with a fair degree of certainty) that the public would be safe. Most countries in Europe estimate this will not happen until well after Easter … or the summer (meanwhile Asian economies are back to near normal following their risk management approaches).
The perversion of precaution (putting the last resort in the risk management process first) has led to stifling lockdowns with dreadful consequences. Without risk management policy tools, our authorities in Europe and the Americas could only take the most restrictive measures. When things worsened again after the summer, the only policy choice was … a further lockdown.
This was a KeystoneCorona farce at its best but a tragedy for humanity at its worst. The precautionary poison has led Western societies into the dark hole of lost prosperity, security and opportunity. But shouldn’t that be easy to correct then? Shouldn’t our leaders simply be able to fix this (just by reading the Risk-Monger)? That is where Part 6 of this miserable year-end review will take us … to the groups lobbying our governments who think this 2020 shitshow will result in a better place.