Politics, Science, and Reason: What COVID-19 Reveals About Public Policy Across Nations

As nations look ahead to emerging from stringent COVID-19 lockdown and circuit-breaker modes, the immediate challenge will be to balance public health, on the one hand, and economic livelihoods, on the other. Lifting protection measures too quickly can re-ignite a wave of lethal infection. Clamping down for too long can result in unnecessary unemployment, lost economic output, and continued immiserisation of the most vulnerable in societies. If we think of social and economic performance as following a U-shaped trajectory through time, scientific research needs to uncover parameters and tradeoffs as we slide up the second half of the U. But are there also lessons for policy-making from how societies navigated the first half of the U?

I argue the signs are grim for many polities.

A number of nations had been noticeably lax about responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. But their leadership, and some of their populations, were more in denial on the science of the coronavirus, than they were thoughtfully articulating concerns about economic slowdown.

Public policy works when science works: The evidence base is clear and trusted; causal mechanisms are stable; historical patterns extrapolate and generalise, but with special cases, counter-examples, and the range of uncertainty well understood. Human societies still need to decide on tradeoffs between competing goals, but the frontier boundary of sensible choices is clear.

This is why, of all the deeply worrying conflicts in the world today, perhaps the most damaging and debilitating for humanity’s future might be the all-out attack on Science and Reason. If rational thinking is denied, how will public policy operate in a world where facts and figures are rejected, and there is no shared understanding of what good governance can achieve? When political leadership pays mind to what the people want, social tradeoffs are already difficult enough to negotiate between legitimate competing goals. But a whole other dimension wrenches open if we reject rational thinking that deploys established facts and causal mechanisms.

Are there real-world examples of public policy that reject rational thinking? Look at COVID-19

Many thought the world reached Peak Denial when the UK politician Michael Gove, in the heat of the 2016 Brexit campaign, said “Britain has had enough of experts”. Those steeped in rational thinking find such attitudes inexplicable, and have to explain them away as, well, politics.

But, instead, is it science that really has gotten the world wrong? And if so how does policy-making have to adjust?

After all, reason’s dissonance escalates ever more today, not least in discussion about America’s political leadership on COVID-19. In April 2020 David Frum argued in the Atlantic that Americans would pay the ultimate price for President Trump’s failure: “That the pandemic occurred is not Trump’s fault. The utter unpreparedness of the United States for a pandemic is Trump’s fault.” To support his case, Frum pointed to the fall in US respirator capacity and protective medical gear, and to political leadership suggesting to Americans that the coronavirus was like a harmless flu that would fizzle out on its own. Frum blamed these squarely on President Trump.

Frum’s factual assertions are straightforward to confirm. Similarly well documented are the President’s statements on COVID-19. On 30 Jan 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a public health emergency: Trump described the situation as “very well under control” and said that it would be “a very good ending for us”. Three weeks after that, on 23 Feb, Trump said to journalists, “We have it very much under control in this country”. Eighteen days after, on 12 Mar, the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, with 2200 cases confirmed in the US. The President pointed to the low number of US deaths and said, “The US, because of what I did and what the administration did with China, we have 32 deaths […] When you look at the kind of numbers that you’re seeing coming out of other countries, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it.”

On 26 Mar 2020 the US became the world’s lead nation in COVID-19 confirmed cases.

Source: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center Cumulative Cases https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/cumulative-cases

Based on these and related observations, Frida Ghitis’s opinion, published 31 Mar 2020 in the Atlantic, is blunt:

Donald Trump is presiding over one of the worst calamities to befall the nation in living memory, and anyone who has followed his response since the coronavirus morphed from a worrisome outbreak in a Chinese province into a global pandemic knows the truth: Trump’s response has been disastrous.

But Ghitis’s point was not to provide yet more evidence in support of this judgment. Instead it was to contrast such facts and figures with how Trump continued to attract high and rising approval ratings from the American people. As Ghitis herself put it, “Despite his well-documented incompetence and lies, Trump is now enjoying some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency. Even more baffling, a majority of Americans—as many as 60 percent in one poll—think he’s doing a good job tackling the crisis.”

Indeed, that same day, the New York Times’s Gabriel and Lerer wrote

Across the country, the coronavirus has sickened more than 150,000 people, cost millions their jobs and tanked the stock market. Yet the president’s approval ratings are as high as they have ever been, despite what most agree to be his slow performance dealing with the crisis, as well as his record of falsehoods about the virus, his propensity to push ideas and treatments that contradict expert advice, and his habit of lashing out at governors on the front lines.

It wasn’t that the American people were unconcerned about COVID-19 (Galston, 2020): almost 90% of Americans acknowledged the outbreak to be a major threat to the US economy. Only 30% said COVID-19’s potential impact was hyped by political motivations.

Nor was there at that time any suggestion that Trump was making a call on the choice between either stringent COVID-19 measures or keeping the economy going. Then most commentators were advocating fiscal and monetary expansion, and testing and contact tracing, not a lockdown, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

If causal mechanisms and historical pattern extrapolation remained valid as a way to understand the world, Trump would no longer be viable as America’s president—corporate CEOs have resigned or been ejected for disastrous performances less egregious.

In Apr 2010 Tony Hayward was BP’s Group CEO when high-pressure methane gas from BP’s Gulf of Mexico Macondo oil well ignited and exploded, sinking the drilling rig the Deepwater Horizon, and killing eleven workers on board. Over 200mn gallons of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico, making the Deepwater Horizon disaster the largest maritime oil spill in US history BP was found grossly negligent and was charged US$18.7bn, the largest environmental fine in US history, from legal action by the US Justice Department and five gulf states. Total costs to BP would exceed US$54bn.

Before all these repercussions unfolded, however, Tony Hayward had already been removed by BP’s Board. In May, a month after Deepwater Horizon, he had said “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume”. Hayward had argued that the environmental impact of the spill would be “very, very modest”. Upon being told cleanup workers were getting sick, raising concerns about the oil spill’s toxic effects, he had counter-suggested, “Food poisoning is clearly a big issue“.

Some of Trump’s COVID-19 pronouncements echo in tone Hayward’s oil-spill responses from ten years earlier. But Hayward met opposition and dissatisfaction very quickly. Within three months of Deepwater Horizon, BP had announced that Tony Hayward would depart by October. Presidents are, of course, not replaced the same way CEOs are. Nonetheless, how is Trump continuing to attract widespread approbation?

For one, Ghitis suggested it is because Trump has been able to control the narrative, “taking credit for each positive development, conjuring nonexistent progress, blaming others for every failure, demanding that those around him sing his praises before the cameras, and extorting praise from governors in exchange for federal aid. He repeats this until the extent of his failures, however well documented, fades from the minds of a large segment of Americans, desperate to feel protected in the face of a mysterious and frightening threat.” In a second possibility, not unrelated, others have noted that there is a “presidential approval rally effect“, i.e., that Americans rally around their leader when they feel the nation under threat.

Yet a third explanation is the sharp divide along partisan lines that separates different parts of the American public in how they see the world. In this thinking, on one side are Trump’s fervent supporters, some of whom consider the numerous COVID-19 warnings—those raised by the World Health Organization and by Dr Anthony Fauci, the Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—to be part of a sinister plot against the President. According to this internally self-confirming theory, there is a conspiracy that aims to bring about a new world order, where America’s position will be diminished, to the sharp disadvantage of ordinary Americans, but to the benefit of cosmopolitan elites and the rest of the world.

(This relationship is that between a set of scientist interlocutors, on the one hand, and Trump’s supporters, on the other. It is related but not linearly to the widely-reported account where Fauci says of Trump “He does listen. He may go out and express it in a different way. He has his own style. There are many, many people in the United States who like that style.”)

A common feature in these (and potentially other) explanations is the disconnect between, on the one hand, a set of grounded facts and, on the other, an infodemic of false or irrelevant information that drives the actual outcome. If such situations persist or become the norm, public policy faces a new challenge: policy cannot be simultaneously both evidence-based and politically-sanctioned, the latter by political leadership and the general public.

My argument here is that it is not just political leadership that discounted or differentially weighted scientific evidence. Ordinary people did too, and continued to support political leadership that they would not have tolerated in corporate settings: compare Trump’s experience on the COVID-19 crisis with that of, say, Tony Hayward’s on Deepwater Horizon.

So really the big divide going forwards: have we reached The End of the Age of Science and Reason?

If this is a diatribe, it’s one that targets those elements that are anti-science and anti-reason. The focus thus far on the American political body is not because that political body happens to be American, but because parts of it so forcefully reject science and reason.

On COVID-19 more generally questions need to be asked why no action was taken by political leadership not just in America but across many nations. The 2019 novel coronavirus was described in an article in The Lancet on 24 Jan 2020: there was pandemic potential; mortality was judged to be high and death counts were increasing rapidly with evidence of efficient human transmission; testing upon suspicion and personal protective equipment for health-care workers were recommended. Thirteen days before then the virus’s complete genome sequence had been published on open science networks, followed quickly by others around the world.

Richard Horton, The Lancet‘s editor, wrote that the new generation of Chinese scientists had learnt lessons from the 2003 SARS secrecy of Chinese officials. This time, “Under immense pressure, as the epidemic exploded around them, they took time to write up their findings in a foreign language and seek publication in a medical journal thousands of miles away. Their rapid and rigorous work was an urgent warning to the world. We owe those scientists enormous thanks.” But, Horton, asked “Why did it take the UK government eight weeks to recognise the seriousness of what we now call Covid-19?”

To repeat, the key ideas—efficient human transmission; pandemic potential; high mortality; testing and personal protective equipment for health-care worker; public dissemination of the genome sequence for scientific verification—were openly published in an international scientific journal by Chinese scientists on 24 January. Individually, top scientists in the US, the UK, and elsewhere understood the science reported by China’s scientists. But collectively the political establishments there failed to act.

Some places did see policies more responsive to the rising emergency: In China itself 24 January 2020 was when China’s authorities imposed lockdown on Wuhan and then extended to all of Hubei province. (Sure, with hindsight, they should have acted earlier. But even when they did,the charge levied against them at the time was partly that they should have moved before then but also partly that their actions were overly draconian.) A day earlier, on 23 Jan 2020, Singapore recorded its first confirmed case, a Chinese national from Wuhan who had arrived with his family three days earlier. Singapore’s Ministry of Health urged the public to remain calm and vigilant, and said that it expected to see more such cases. By 27 Jan 2020, four days after its first confirmed case, Singapore had readied four Government Quarantine Facilities across the island. Contact tracing, intensive testing, and social distancing in moderation characterised Singapore’s public health response at this early stage.

In a lot of the rest of the world, however, collective inertia and a diminished sense of scientific importance meant that no sense of pandemic urgency manifested, for months after a terrible warning had been published in a premier scientific journal. And even when some nations, India notably, did act, what they produced as stringent lockdown neither protected people nor nurtured economic activity.

China should certainly have allowed greater information flow that the world could understand the tragedy unfolding in Wuhan throughout December and January. After the outbreak had become obviously severe, the measures China took against COVID-19, by many accounts, involved “social control and intrusive surveillance” that would not be “a good model for other countries”. One member of the WHO team that visited China said “no one else in the world really can do what China just did.” Added another, “nor should they.” The WHO team registered a good number of political objections, and rightly.

Scientists and experts who explain away comments that their nation has had enough of them as, well, politics, are ultimately right. Nothing ultimately disentangles from politics. However, the place for science and reason badly needs to be restored. Without that, good public policy itself is impossible.

Lessons for Public Policy

The goal of this report is not to apportion blame or triumph across nations. Indeed, COVID-19 has continued to change in character and impact, and all responses to it have constantly had to evolve. Instead, the goal of this article has been to describe the facts on how different national systems have responded to the pandemic, against a background of lessons and warnings from science. What are the conclusions that have emerged from this?

First, encourage diversity in thinking but always from a common base of fundamentals. Without this last, it is impossible to have any kind of sensible discussion with potential resolution.

Second, surface fundamental disputes in the population early on, not keep them hidden in safe spaces or political correctness. Very basic disagreements will only fester and grow, until the distance between them becomes too late to repair, just when a crisis needs people to come together.

Third, elevate rational thinking. This doesn’t mean believing (in economics, say) in perfect markets and selfish, infinitely calculating individuals. It means understanding cause and effect in social mechanisms; knowing that if social and economic systems are variable in outcome, they are unstable in a predictable, explicable way. It means understanding that people behave purposefully, even if not economic-neoclassically.

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, the challenge was public safety: keep national health systems from being overwhelmed, keep people from dying before their time. With stringent measures taken against COVID-19 transmission, yet a new challenge has emerged: Many of the anti-COVID policies adopted have led to dramatic falls in economic activity, with a lot of those declines affecting disproportionately the poor and vulnerable. Going forwards, science and rational thinking need to map out the new emerging tradeoff between public health and economic livelihood. But to do that, it will be evidence and reasoned analysis that need to calibrate our thinking. Just as neither public health nor economic prosperity alone should guide what governments do, so too should our thinking discard the extreme-equality view that “my stubborn ignorance counts as much as your scientific expertise”.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: