COVID-19: A Risk Management Crisis
In 2020 the world of risk management imploded. After decades of prosperity and consensus-driven policy management, the shift towards policy through precaution had weakened Western governance allowing for a viral outbreak to completely overwhelm health systems, strangle economies and deny basic benefits and social goods.
The Risk-Monger was writing on this crisis before it dominated the headlines, identifying it as a failure in risk management. Several years ago, he had predicted that the only way to address the weakening of policy management through a dependence on precaution was, sadly, to wait until the bodies started piling up. He had anticipated a global famine or mass infections from antimicrobial resistance, and he still feels this to be the major threat. The 2020 coronavirus crisis is not the Big One, but hopefully it will wake us up on the need to protect the fragility of our human existence.
The Post-COVID-19 Blueprint
This seven-part series looks at what went wrong with risk management during the 2020 COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, how the zero-risk popular mindset has left populations vulnerable and what is needed to develop a risk management process fit for the 21st century. As societies move out of coronavirus lockdowns, this series was written in the context where most activist groups were laying out blueprints for more precaution and less research, technology and risk-taking (just what got societies into this problem in the first place).
Precaution is a principle for prosperity where the consequences of bans of substances and blocking of technologies can be absorbed by the wealthy, healthy and privileged. As a risk management tool, it was completely inadequate for the COVID-19 crisis, and the consequences have been catastrophic to our Western social goods and benefits. This article looks at why precaution was never a legitimate risk management tool.
This first part defines docilians as risk-averse individuals who demand their authorities deliver complete safety and certainty. They expect nothing less than zero risk leading to the reflex use of the precautionary principle. Given their privilege and affluence, docilian demands have changed the way Western societies manage risks and benefits.
This chapter looks at the four factors that have led to the rise of the zero-risk docilian mindset: 1) the regulatory transition towards participatory governance that favoured consensus over expertise and facts; 2) the rise of activist influence in the policy process and their relentless precautionary campaigns; 3) the dominance of social media echo-chambers amplifying fear of uncertainty; and 4) several decades of prosperity brought about by technological advances and the lack of any global famines or catastrophes.
A docilian detox entails that individuals need to understand they are the ones responsible for their health and well-being. The world does not exist to take care of them. This section offers a six-step detox plan to move from waiting for someone to provide safety and certainty to taking charge of managing risks. Key to this plan is realism, responsibility, trust and respect for science and technology – all things docilians lack.
Every activist campaigner seems to be claiming that their issue is what caused the coronavirus pandemic: climate change, ecosystem collapse, GMOs and pesticides (even glyphosate), deforestation, 5G, global trade… And every activist campaigner has one solution in the new Post-COVID-19 world: more precaution. This section looks at the how these claims fly in the face of reason and analyses why policymakers, influencers and the media are still listening to them.
Section 3.2 looks at the seven key steps in a basic risk management process and shows where precaution should come into the process. It then turns to the COVID-19 pandemic and analyses what risk managers should have done (and what, in reality most did or did not do). There is an important subsection in this article that shows the difference between precaution and prevention, arguing how risk management is about prevention and protection.
Two decades of reliance on the precautionary principle has led to a loss of regulatory risk management capacity. At a time when Western societies are facing multiple crises in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, more precaution is not the solution. The conclusion of the Post-COVID-19 Blueprint puts forward 12 recommendations to rebuild risk management in a world where populations communicate, trust and perceive risks differently.
Other Articles on COVID-19, Precaution and Risk Management
To say that Western risk managers were not prepared for the coronavirus crisis is an understatement. Here are ten observations on how the risk management of COVID-19 failed spectacularly in the West in 2020 (and what they should have done).
Two decades of precaution created a zero-risk mindset among populations who had become incapable of managing risks. Regulators have come to nanny these “docilians”, removing any risk management choices or trust in their capacity to make personal choices. COVID-19 is a nightmare scenario as precaution imposed severe restrictions and loss of benefits on a population no longer able to accept risks.
In mid-February I anticipated the eventual rise of the coronavirus crisis but tried to frame it positively as a learning experience. Months later when the West woke up, they did not see this so positively, but the points remain valid. When the Big One does come, we will be more prepared and less able to ignore our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. That is indeed a good thing.
The precautionary mindset demands that we be kept safe. But there is no such thing as safe or 100% risk-free. Risk management works on measures to ensure society is kept safer (while ensuring societal goods). With the COVID-19 pandemic, it was impossible to keep populations safe, even with lockdowns. We should have been focusing on reducing risk exposures to keep vulnerable populations safer.
Three months into the lockdown and large levels of social intolerance were starting to manifest themselves. This was to be expected and risk managers should have given some thought into how to manage risks prior to jumping to locking down their populations into intolerable situations. This article explores the logic of intolerance: how society, when fed on amplified outrage activism, reacts against something they refuse to tolerate (and how the solutions are often more intolerable and unjust).
This article starts with the probable assumption that in the next six months to a year, you will contract the COVID-19 coronavirus. What do you need to do today to prepare for the coming storm (until a vaccine can keep you safe)? Filtering out the tin-foil from the valid information, there are five key lessons we could learn from anti-vaxxers in order to survive the virus. But it must be asked: Why don’t our authorities share this advice?
Why did most Western countries go straight into lockdowns and not try to manage the risks in the ten weeks prior to their healthcare systems getting overwhelmed? Why did government risk managers not protect the most vulnerable when it became widely known that the elderly and those with comorbidities had a higher death rate from the coronavirus? It is a terrible indictment of our collective failure that farmers protect their livestock better than we were able to protect our parents in nursing homes.
As cranks and opportunists used the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic to advance their interests, should we be so surprised that a UN-affiliated agency, IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), published a paper blaming industry for the pandemic? Given that Professor Zaruk was busy grading papers at the time, he took his red pen out and gave IPBES a disappointing grade.