Lack of Forward Planning — National Structural Issues Exposed by Covid-19 Series, Part 3
Governments are made up of people, and so a government can exhibit all the same ‘personality traits’ that people do. They can be self-absorbed, naturally defensive, forgetful, distracted, following the wrong path, overwhelmed or completely sociopathic. We’ve seen all of the above from governments during Covid-19. Like people, governments need to be encouraged, and sometimes forced, onto a path of introspection, analysis and then self-improvement.
This short series of articles examines the deep, long hidden structural issues that many countries have, that have been exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here is part three.
Lack of Forward Planning
The Covid-19 pandemic caught out governments all over the world, from the left or the right, democratic to dictatorial, to varying degrees. It shouldn’t have, but it did.
We tend to expect our governments to be prepared for anything. That there will be carefully thought out plans for every eventuality. That before a government makes any decision that they will have considered it from all angles, both short and long term. Well, we were in for a surprise.
The idea of a major pandemic that could severely threaten people’s health, cause significant deaths and disrupt economies is or should have been nothing new. Scientists had been warning about it forever, and journalists had been writing about it for just as long. The entertainment media, from books to movies to computer games, had been exploring pandemic ideas for ages as well.
Also we had plenty of experience. The 1918 Influenza pandemic killed millions. SARS and MERS had shown that pandemics do arise today as well. Ongoing Ebola outbreaks in Africa occur. Yet so many governments seemed flatfooted with regard to Covid-19.
In my view there are three overriding factors in the poor performance of so many governments: short-term thinking, self-interest and a belief in steady state.
Short-term thinking is a particular problem in the democracies. Politicians are too frequently just focused on the next election. There are too few genuine leaders with vision, and those that are often become bogged down in the politics of the day. Also the media exaggerate this and push an adversarial approach between the parties in government, making it harder to take the collaborative, bi-partisan approach that is often needed with long term planning.
Self-interest is a problem of all governments and politicians. The Chinese Communist Party definitely demonstrated this with their jailing of the doctor who tried to alert them to the risk of Covid-19. A party that tries to control everything is thus responsible for everything, and so the CCP is clearly responsible for the poor initial response to the virus. We also saw self-interest in the ongoing denial and then fractured response to the virus from the US.
Belief in the steady state is a very human failing. We tend to believe that tomorrow will be like today, and there is a general failure to believe that the sudden, catastrophic event can be real. Governments need to portray that they have a steady hand of the wheel of state, that everything is stable and so their citizens can feel, often very wrongly, that all is well, and they are in safe hands. Part of the problem is that human lifespans are fairly short and human memories even shorter.
The failure of forward planning manifested in so many ways. I’ll highlight some of the most important ones.
A running down of healthcare systems in general has occurred in many places, driven by privileging economic growth and tax cuts over proper care. Stockpiles of critical supplies were shown to be far too low in many countries. Likewise a lack of surge capacity in intensive care, the ability to cope with a massive influx of patients, had been compromised for economic reasons and justified on the steady state belief that demand would be pretty constant.
Local manufacturing capacity had been run down in many countries. Again economic factors outweighed common sense. All because moving most of our manufacturing capacity offshore saved money for business. In a steady state world it could be justified, but Covid-19 illustrated the fallacy of this. In the early period of the virus being mainly limited to China, early panic occurred in business because supply chains that were dependent on Chinese speedy manufacture failed. Then as demand for critical items, like face masks and respirators peaked, shortages occurred. It turned out, for example, that Australia only had one factory making face masks. Replacements bought overseas turned out to be faulty.
As discussed in a previous article, the casualisation of workforces meant more people had no sick leave and minimal financial security. In such circumstances many such people will continue to work when sick. Also casual workers often occupy jobs that bring them into contact with large number of people, such as in hospitality, entertainment and aged care. This was an obvious public health disaster waiting to happen.
The ongoing (at the time of writing) Covid-19 disaster in the US shows the public health disaster that their economic and health systems caused. A huge financially vulnerable population along with limited access to healthcare except for the wealthy and securely employed made rapid spread inevitable. It doesn’t matter if the wealthy have access to great heath care (at a price) if their domestic help doesn’t and is so close to the edge financially that they must keep working no matter what. A healthy country required that everyone be healthy.
Transportation decisions have often been made without considering the wider consequences. Covid-19 has demonstrated just how dependent many countries are on air and road transport of goods. The problem with both is the fairly large number of people involved in close proximity and thus the ease with which they can be vectors of spread. When the dust has settled, and careful analysis of transmission patterns can be done, I would be surprised if this was not shown to be significant factor.
One would hope that the huge shock that Covid-19 has caused will drive citizens to demand better forward planning from our governments, more openness and a recognition that short-term financial gain can come at a huge price later.
With the evidence pointing to increased frequencies of pandemics, the public health implications of all government and business decisions need to be considered. Just as major developments need an environmental impact study, maybe we should be demanding a public health impact study as well.
Government policies must be examined with public health issues in mind. For example, Australia has never really gotten its act together with regard to long distance rail transport. This means that most freight transport is done via trucks. Apart from the obvious environmental issues, there is the very real issue of the labour intensiveness of this, and thus the possibility of spread of disease.
Countries need to take careful consideration of local manufacturing capacity. Governments must look beyond limited views of strategic manufacturing capacity, that is often limited to war fighting capacity, to consider far wider capabilities. The possibilities of modern advanced and flexible manufacturing processes, from 3D printing to CNC need to be considered and perhaps advanced manufacturing hubs need to be strategically positioned throughout countries, remember that in a pandemic transport may be badly impacted.
Business needs to remember the value of diversified sources for products and services. Economies of scale and the drive for cheap labour has concentrated too much dependence on too few places. The disruptions of supply from China in the early days of the pandemic must be remembered and lessons learned. Business should also remember the value in local sources under direct control in being able to rapidly adapt to local needs.
Free enterprise should not drive health systems. While private medical facilities have their place, the profit motive will always drive up costs and drive an efficiency of service capacity that will not be able to cope with the unexpected. Governments must accept the need for universal health care as not only a human right but a necessary survival strategy for the nation and species.
While combative political processes have their place, they can also limit government’s ability to act responsibly. Democratic governments must serve the real needs of their people and totalitarian governments must do the same if they expect to avoid revolution in the long term. We, who our governments serve, must demand better performance and less grandstanding. Consensus and collaborative decision making should drive many strategic areas of government policy. We need to encourage the media to focus on such behaviour through our media consumption.
Covid-19 has exposed so many flaws in many countries. It is up to us to demand real change and to not accept anything less. If we don’t, we will repeat this all over again.
Part 4 of this series will look at the Lack of Common-Sense and The Rise of Stupidity.