In 2020-21, the COVID-19 coronavirus highlighted severe weaknesses in the European Union’s governance structure accentuated by fatal shortcomings in its leadership capacity. Three decades of affluence, surplus and a peace dividend meant Europe’s leaders spent more time passing out windfalls than managing hard decisions. Somewhere over that fortunate generation of gift-giving disguised as policymaking, EU authorities lost the ability to manage risks and had assumed governing merely meant removing all hazards via a policy principle they called ‘precaution’ and falsely assuring their populations they could maintain their dream of safe, certain livelihoods.
European leaders were, quite simply, woefully unprepared to manage a global pandemic. Having grown docile and entitled, European populations were themselves unprepared to manage personal risks. Too many people died as too few acted during the time they had been given to reduce risks from the viral outbreak.
I started realising our European leadership was no longer qualified to govern in February, 2020 when the pandemic was clearly spreading and no one was reacting. By March I was screaming to concentrate on risk reduction measures to protect the most vulnerable (those in nursing homes and with comorbidities). Instead, the failure to act was followed by precautionary lockdowns with disregard for any debilitating consequences they would impose on the public. Lockdowns were the only policy tool used in most European countries over three infection spikes (waves) despite the clear risk management benchmarks demonstrated in countries like South Korea, China and Taiwan showing how countries could control the pandemic spread without psychologically terrorising their populations or strangling their economies. Even when the scientific community developed vaccines in record time, our European leaders managed to cock that up as well.
More frustrating is how the European population has bought into the narrative that there were no risk management alternatives. I coined the term “Docilian” to refer to a population happy to sit back and wait for their governments to keep them 100% safe and risk-free by using the precautionary principle to protect them from any potentially harmful hazards. Two decades of the poison of precaution led to a governance strategy that any uncertainties or potential threats could be addressed by banning products or stopping actions (regardless of any benefit loss). Europe has slowly evolved into a region populated by sheep, living on fear and waiting to be protected.
Not only were such large populations unable to understand what it meant to protect themselves from a viral pandemic, they quickly lashed out at those seeking to implement basic risk management measures. When three epidemiologists offered basic risk-reduction strategies in order to protect the most vulnerable, in what was known as the Great Barrington Declaration, the backlash among a certain group of precautionistas was as alarming in their precautionary invectives as they were in their ignorance.
In December, 2020, when 40 countries decided, within 24 hours, to isolate Britain after the Dutch authorities belatedly responded to a UK-identified variant strain that had already spread across most of Europe, I came to the conclusion that our Western leadership was becoming even comical in their incompetence. I likened them to the bumbling, stumbling Keystone Kops and wrote a series of articles highlighting ten ridiculous and stupid decisions that our authorities had taken (or failed to take). The KeystoneCorona series was supposed to take place over the end-of-year holidays but given that I had been battling my own experience with a form of long COVID, this series took over three months to complete.
Europeans deserve to be governed by risk managers, not precautionista charlatans. If the hundreds of thousands of lives prematurely lost to this dreadful pandemic were not to be in vain, it would be to hopefully wake us up from this docilian slumber and provide us with governments once again capable of managing risks. Here is a brief summary (linked to the full articles) of the top ten most incompetent actions from European leaders in the first year of their pathetic mismanagement of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. I pray that they can only get better but I fear we have yet to see the worst.
Western leadership only provided two messages from January until May 2020: Wash your hands and try to avoid contact with people who visibly looked sick. Authorities were only concerned with risk avoidance (keeping populations out of their overwhelmed hospitals – to “flatten the curve”). They were not concerned with whether their populations lived or died and they had done nothing to advise their citizens on how to prepare themselves to survive the virus. In fact the lockdowns did just the opposite: creating situations that lowered immunity levels while leaving unprepared populations more vulnerable were they to be afflicted by COVID-19.
The COVID-19 coronavirus spread from China to other Asian countries in January-February, 2020 with early outbreaks in Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea. But how did these countries keep the virus relatively under control while it continues, sixteen months on, to rage in Europe? Tracking. Most European Union countries did not introduce tracking tools or systems to follow up and control individuals who had been exposed to super-spreader events. This basic risk management tool was quite simple. Any time a person were to get on a train or enter a shop, he or she would have to scan an individual QR code that tracked their whereabouts. In case of an outbreak, the person would immediately be notified, confined and the scanning tool would be alerted if said person were to move around in public spaces. This was a strategy that had worked to control COVID-19 outbreaks in many countries in East Asia (where GDPR was not such an obsessive issue). After a certain point, and a large needless loss of life, shouldn’t Western regulators have benchmarked how tracking had worked and implemented similar tools? That assumes, though, a basic understanding and commitment to risk management. Maybe our authorities felt that continuous precautionary lockdowns were easier to manage.
In early 2020, if European authorities had implemented a series of basic risk management measures (provide clear risk assessment data, scenario-building, risk reduction measures, clear communications with populations…), they would have lessened the impact of the virus, contained the spread and preserved a significant amount of societal benefits. Instead, they did nothing until the pandemic peaked, forcing most states to rush into precautionary lockdowns (a measure only normally taken when risk management approaches had failed). For example, it was widely known in January, 2020 that the elderly were most vulnerable to this virus (accounting for around half of the deaths), but most care homes were not firewalled and did not receive adequate PPE in most countries until May. Worse, the lockdowns left grandparents taking care of asymptomatic children who were unable to go to school. Quite simply, after 20 years of EU policy being guided by the precautionary principle (a hazard-based uncertainty management tool), there was no risk management competence left in Brussels or most other European capitals.
Are European populations being led by strategic thinkers and servants of the state or by virtue signalling autocrats enforcing a new morality on a frightened populace? When hard decisions needed to be taken, our leaders merely told us to wash our hands. When populations needed to make decisions to strengthen their immunity levels to fight the likely event of being infected by the coronavirus, authorities were assuring their populations they could be kept safe if they just followed the lockdown measures. When innovation, disruptive thinking and solutions-oriented strategies should have been promoted with populations empowered and trusted, they were herded into their homes, having their liberties restricted and interests denied. Those in power were more concerned about being perceived as caring and virtuous nannies than being effective and decisive leaders. Rather than consulting populations, a series of virtuous behaviours were imposed on a diverse population via a series of precautionary denials. After a year of failure in protecting the public, is it any wonder trust in our leadership and respect for the lockdowns has diminished? And rather than accepting their risk management failures as the pandemic continues to rage, our authorities blamed their citizens for not “behaving properly”.
For much of the 21st century, Western risk governance has been largely led by the precautionary principle. It has perverted the role of leadership and the concept of how a state protects its population. Governments should provide the means for economies to grow, individuals prosper and not be threatened by the ravages of nature. This was often achieved by the scientific and technological innovations which had allowed large parts of Western societies to advance and no longer experience uncertain futures. Perhaps science had done too good of a job as a strong reactive element in the West has since perverted this concept of protection, demanding that our leaders protect nature from these technologies, limit economic prosperity (the Great Reset) and systematically remove any innovations that could not be proven to be 100% safe and certain (ie, all of them). This is the perversion of precaution. When encountering an uncertain or hazardous situation, risk management has a series of tools to try to reduce exposures and allow the benefits to continue. Uncertainty management (precaution), meanwhile, would eliminate the situation unless safety can be proven (there would not even be the opportunity for risk management measures). Given the level of affluence, most of the consequences of denying populations from beneficial technologies went largely unnoticed … until a pandemic reminded humanity that nature can indeed be one mean “Mother”. Without the capacity to manage risks, our authorities went straight into lockdown, removing all societal benefits (with catastrophic consequences which will affect us for generations).
The Precautionary Principle offers policymakers the path of least resistance: a blameless way out of challenging situations while providing an image of a caring, benevolent leader concerned for the population’s well-being. This has created expectations in society that citizens should never be exposed to risks and that everything must be 100% safe and certain. Except that nothing is as such and this reliance on the precautionary governance-by-denial (removing all hazardous situations) has created a docile population incapable of managing their own risks. These “docilians” are not only risk averse, they actively work to obstruct innovators and problem-solvers who have created the benefits behind their comfortable lives. Within a Nanny State, these sheep embrace any activity to restore certainty and safety. When the COVID-19 coronavirus struck, the only strategy our benign leadership had was to tell their docilian population that if they had wanted to be safe, they had better stay indoors (and wash their hands). No advice on how to survive exposure to the virus nor how to take care of others. They were assured that if they just washed their hands (with soap!), they would all soon be able to go back to their cherished state of “normal”. As that docilian promise of 100% safe and risk-free was brutally broken, too many of these sheep were tragically led to an early slaughter.
Western leaders, at a certain point in the middle of 2020, realised they had failed to properly manage the pandemic and decided to instead wait and hope for a rapid development of a vaccine to help save them and put Europeans back on a path to “normal”. So they subjected their populations to a fresh wave of autumn lockdowns telling them to hold tight and wait for the “vaxalvation”. Asian countries that had applied basic risk management tools were already back to near normal lives (without a vaccine) but Europeans chose the precautionary route. Of course this all depended on one little point: when the time came, could European leaders manage a successful vaccine rollout? What a total cock-up this has been. As Germany heads once again into lockdown until at least June, 2021 (six months after a vaccine was developed by a German company), we can see how stupid this risk management capitulation has become. Europeans deserve so much more from their leadership.
The precautionary bias in Europe has become so severe and most European regulators are so deeply entrenched in the hazard-based reflex, that they would not know how to manage a risk even if their lives depended on it (bad joke intended). I likened it to the medieval practice of bloodletting built on the bias that illness was caused by bad humours in the body that would need to be let out. Even if the remedy was killing people, these conceptual blinders refused to allow doctors then to see clearly. Today, even as the lockdowns continue to cause serious economic suffering, mental health crises, domestic violence and more illness, even as the bodies are piling up, the European precautionistas can only see hazards and can only call out: “More blood!!!”. Between the first and second virus infection waves, European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, did not waste any time trying to get back to her precautionary policy flagship, the Green Deal. At some point though, these blinders will be taken off or the head will turn and hopefully our authorities will realise their failure to manage risks over the last sixteen months. But until then, how many more will have to needlessly die?
Two decades of European policy built around the precautionary blinders has also led to a public docilian mindset believing that people could easily live their lives risk-free and safe from uncertainty. If our leaders can remove everything that has caused these hazards (crop protection tools, nuclear energy, GMOs, fossil fuels, air travel, livestock farming, capitalism…) we could then restore “normal” – some mythical Malthusian utopia before things all assumedly went wrong. Precaution is a restoratory tool – remove what man had done to return the world to a balanced state – some past-yearning state of normal. When the pandemic hit, the public was locked down, told to shelter in place and stop all activities until ‘normal’ returns. This restoration of normal – what docilians want to hear and what precautionistas want to promise – is a ruse. We need more innovations and better technologies, not blinkered precautionary reset buttons.
Today regulators claim they are acting on the science. In effect, they have limited their scientific scope to advice from groups of like-minded scientists who have been assembled to tell the authorities what they want to hear and provide the needed consensus to justify their decisions. So coronavirus taskforces were comprised largely of healthcare officials and statisticians who lacked the broader expertise needed to manage complex risk situations. Their precautionary “do no harm” focus led most Western governments straight down the lockdown rabbit-hole. Decades of affluence protected Western leaders from ever having to make hard decisions – from ever having to actually manage risks. Any time there was a problem, most Western leaders just applied precaution until the problem went away. When a novel coronavirus started to spread across Europe, they just applied precautionary lockdowns and waited for the virus to go away. That is what they had always done and the limited scientific advisers they had assembled confirmed this tragic bias. Responsible risk managers would have assembled a more diverse group of advisers to develop more robust scenarios that considered all consequences and strategies. These risk managers understand that there is no such thing as “the” science and would consider all legitimate positions and approaches. Risk managers would not have let this unmitigated disaster inflict Europe for sixteen months and counting.
Thank goodness Europeans are governed by the far more enlightened hazard-based precautionary principle. I keep waiting for this policy nightmare to end, but for that to happen, many more people would have to stop thinking this way.