Covid 19: Getting things wrong is a feature, not a bug in democracy, but can we keep learning from them?

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

-John Donne, via TWiV

I have tried not to over comment on the progress (or lack of it) in handling the Coronavirus by any one government or administration. If there is a long term advantage to having been plunged into deep uncertainty, we can learn quicker.

The Pfizer vaccine is promising (not to say astonishing), but even more promising is that it is only one of maybe three or four vaccines coming onto the market in the next few months. The global nature of the threat has cut development time to a fraction.

But in the meantime, we have a very difficult winter to get through. Keeping demand manageable on the NHS is not the only resource problem, the reluctance to come into hospital or even call the GP may be storing up other fatalities.

I’m booked in later in the week to pick up a flu shot from the local GP and have been told I have to come to the backdoor where precautions are in place to administrate it out with the confines of the surgery.

Lots of treatments are now being handled on the phone, cutting time and stressful journeys down for both patients and medical staff alike. Afterward, we will have a huge amount of experience from which to learn.

Chris Dillow, a wise man of the British left notes something important here:

 Michael Story and Stuart Ritchie describe how experts were initially wrong about Covid-19, for example in resisting the use of masks and calls for an early lockdown. Again, though, this form of ruin is inevitable: the world is complex and unknowable.

We must choose which errors to make, what ruin to incur. Where we might justifiably blame the experts is not so much for being wrong but for exaggerating their knowledge.

Quite. For example, although it left a lot of daft conjecture and real damage (in the Dakotas infection rates went through the roof because of non-compliance) in its wake, the reason mask-wearing wasn’t pushed was that PPE was prioritised for medical staff.

The calls for an early lockdown was resisted in the UK partly because the behavioural science suggested that people would resist. It turns out that a shared common threat to life and sheer visceral fear is a powerful motivator.

One close member of my own family saw three medical colleagues end up in ICT, two of them were given ventilation.  Now in the second wave, I have good friends who have lost people in a second wave which is more diffuse and hard to track than the first.

So although the threat remains very real right now, there is likely to be some kind of conclusion to the crisis (which has seen governments borrow $1.25 trillion on the bond market just to try to keep local economies from collapsing.

Despite amazing levels of innovation, local businesses are struggling as Trevor Ringland highlighted in the Irish News last week:

For wider public health, mental health and our standard of life, we need to rescue our economy, enable social activity and let younger people continue to work.

The private sector should be at the forefront of this drive – promoting innovation and bringing both courage and caution to our thinking.

Business people and others had adapted to make the best of the situation, but the latest restrictions undermined all their hard work.

We should be seeking out examples of good practice and encouraging their wider adoption as we dare not destroy our economy any further.

As the Chief Medical Officer said on Nolan this morning, these are difficult decisions, and I would not like to be a politician. This is the right relationship between experts (who aren’t accountable to the people, and politicians who are).

The Republic’s five-level system allows for a basket of considerations, not least High Street retailers whose businesses have no access to large sums of public cash that say some of the airlines have needed to keep them solvent.

Getting things wrong is a feature, not a bug in democracy, the more relevant question is whether we have the courage to keep learning from our so called mistakes?

Photo by eliza28diamonds is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA