I used to listen to a few podcasts from the firm Geopolitical Futures in years gone by. They don’t seem to put as much content out for free anymore, so I was slightly surprised to come across this article from them recently discussing the Wuhan virus not behind a paywall.

The article as a whole is interesting; it lays out four lessons that are there to be learnt by countries in the aftermath of this global disaster. I won’t go through them all in full, but they are useful “take-aways” (we are allowed these again in NZ after the move from full lock down…) from the pandemic; a way to reframe our thinking from the day-to-day concern of case numbers, deaths, economic devastation to more longer term considerations.

The first less is the trite, but often seemingly forgotten, lesson that the optimal response for a country to a pandemic lies between total lockdown and business as usual. It is not a binary choice between 1) everyone is welded shut inside their homes (although China did try this…) and 2) everyone is out and about, touching their faces with gay abandon.

Even Sweden, the “open” society model, has not continued with life as normal. It has simply been more towards the “open” end of the political spectrum.

It will be hard to evaluate the successful policy combination after the event. We have no control or test case where a country did both an open policy and a more closed policy. We can compare similar countries, but must take into account differences in season, population density, public transport use etc.

(On that note, it is fascinating that supporters here of a restrictive approach compare NZ to Italy and the USA, rather than to the much more comparable Australia. Almost as if they are cherry picking countries to bolster their argument…almost…)

We can model different approaches to try and compare the different possible policy responses, but let us just say that the modelling used do not command universal support (ahem, Neil Ferguson, ahem). This is a problem, because it will be hard to learn policy lessons to be used when the next pandemic occurs.

The second lesson also seems obvious, but also seems to have been obviously ignored by many policy makers: experts have expertise in one area only. That means that they do not usually qualify their advice with considerations from outside their area of expertise. It is the leader’s job to take advice from a number of experts in different fields and then combine that advice into an (often messy) policy response.

While a harsh lockdown may be the best response to deal with the Wuflu, there are other competing interests to be balanced. Such as the economy, other health problems, a healthy social life and what people will actually put up with in practice.

As Churchill noted: “Scientists should be on tap, but not on top”. Unfortunately the faucets have been placed right at the top of the heap in many countries’ decision making processes.

And this leads into the third lesson that should go without saying, but needs to be relearned by many around the world: there are risks in life and all public policy options involve opportunity costs and trade-offs. Resources are not unlimited, what you spend on one thing you necessarily cannot spend on another thing. Although you cannot put a price on a human life in a moral sense; when it comes to distributing limited public funds, often you do need to do exactly that.

That means that the costs of an economic lockdown need to be factored in and need to be able to be debated without having accusations of “grandma killer” bandied about. The dichotomy of “lives vs dollars” is a false one: prioritising a lockdown to drive down Wuflu deaths will have an impact on suicides, deaths of despair, cancer deaths, heart attacks etc. While we may still decide that a lockdown is an appropriate response, we need to acknowledge that the decision to do so is not without its own cost in human lives.

The fourth and final lesson is that a global supply chain requires redundancies. Tying your country’s economic fortunes to one country only is very risky. Lockdowns in one country threaten supply chains throughout the world.

Further, what counts as products of national importance is probably being re-evaluated. Can we really rely on other countries to supply us with all of our health products and pharmaceuticals? As Italy found out, even our allies will hoard resources in a crisis. We also all seem to be nationalists in a pandemic.

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...