One is that competence matters but is hard to achieve
“The lessons offered are humbling, encouraging and harsh. Perhaps the most notable is that competence matters during emergencies but few governments and their bureaucracies have managed to contain the health and associated economic and social emergency.”
Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, hit Taiwan hard in 2003. As 181 people died, the island’s 23 million people fell into “a collective panic”
The trauma offered lessons. Taiwan, foremost, made provisions for a command centre to marshal efforts during future pandemics. In 2020, the command centre was activated. The preventative steps worked and Taiwan was hailed as the model for suppressing the virus. But not now. Quarantine failures and complacency about vaccinations have led to flareups.
Success and failure, in either order, is a common theme of the pandemic that offers lessons. Humbling ones include that humanity is subservient to nature, how little we know about the virus, even its origins, and how hard it is to contain. People now realise that modern society is as vulnerable to the same unforeseen traumas as were earlier generations.
Good lessons include the value of simple protection measures, that gain can come from misfortune (messenger RNA vaccines) and that tech enables society to function adequately enough under lockdown.
Harsh lessons include that even innocuous things can get politicised (masks), that people have limits (riots over lockdowns), that many risks are hidden (the fragility of supply), and disasters come with a domino effect. The biggest undecided lesson relates to the political choice between lives versus livelihoods. It’s too soon to judge whether the lives saved from COVID-19 will be worth the long-term economic and social price.
The main lesson that can be assessed so far?
Arguably it’s that competence matters when adversity strikes but is hard to achieve. China, foremost, failed to contain the outbreak, while even in advanced countries, administrations had scant capacity to fight a pandemic. Health authorities were often bewildered as they juggled how to balance “a revival of the walled city in an age when prosperity depends on global trade and movement”, in the words of Henry Kissinger, and often failed to safeguard the general public. Officials, in some cases, reported to politicians whose experience, judgement and temperament were unsuited to crisis management.
The result is that few governments have employed strategies that have contained the virus at a seemingly acceptable economic cost. The virus remains a menace because it is too contagious, society is too interconnected and winning strategies often provoked reactions that undermined them – especially that successful elimination strategies led to a public blasé about vaccinations.
The worry is that governments are reaching the end of the financial support they can provide locked-down societies and they will need to pivot to allowing semi-vaccinated populations to live with the virus. Split expectations within society – that ever-more-powerful governments can protect people clashing with lost faith in their ability to do so – are among the health, economic, social and political challenges confronting the governing classes that need to do better as the world approaches the third year of the pandemic.
To be sure, the prompt development and rollout of vaccines have restored much confidence in the ruling elite. Those in charge often learnt from mistakes. Officials, for all their failings, might have prevented worse outcomes, a feat that lacks political reward. Given the viciousness of the virus and its ability to spread and mutate, perhaps much of the criticism policymakers attract is too harsh.
But the repeated errors and lapses in competence hark to tougher conclusions about political leaders and their bureaucracies. The fact is the world struggled against a virus only as deadly as the largely forgotten flu of 1957 that society then, under smaller government, absorbed without lockdowns until a vaccine arrived within three months. Today’s health crisis needs to inspire today’s leaders to be better prepared for the emergencies across all spheres of life that always arise. It’s pretty much the same lesson Taiwan learnt from SARS.
Our financial advisers Bruno Tjelder and Damon Zischke and OBT Financial Planning Pty Ltd are Authorised Representatives of Lonsdale Financial Group Ltd ABN 76 006 637 225 | AFSL 246934.
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Source: Magellan Group