Is it too early to declare Western Governments impotent in the face of Covid-19?

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As of printing, April 3rd 2020, no western liberal democracy has succeeded in either containing, mitigating or stopping the spread of Covid-19.  Despite enormous resources, disease control centres (specifically designed for this task), widespread community buy-in, and a well- endowed medical community, it doesn’t seem that our package of measures is working.

It became clear as early as January 2020 that Covid-19 posed a significant threat to the international community.  At that time no effective measures were introduced to prevent this virus spread from mainland China to Europe or North America.  Even worse, travel increased dramatically as ex-pats rushed to return home as the seriousness of the outbreak became public knowledge.  In most cases the tracking and enforcement of containment measures for this wave of global travel was either non-existent or ineffective.

At this same time, effective and decisive measures were introduced in South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Singapore.  The effort includes the WHO recommended package of testing, contact tracing, isolation and enforcement.  There is a working model out there for us to learn from.

Measures introduced in the West since then have varied widely from total lock-down of the population, to various stages of lock-down and social isolation.  The roll-out has been disjointed, largely unenforced, and with ineffective case testing, tracking, enforcement and isolation.  Taken together, we are neither bending the curve, nor preventing the virus spread.  It is gradually becoming clear that the overall effort is lacking strategic and decisive direction.

It is fair to say that some approaches have been worse than others. Italy, Spain, USA all massively fumbled the early stages of Covid-19 response.  They are now paying for that as morgues overflow and the medical system crumbles.  The other western liberal democracies have been more mid level, hitting the main points, but lacking in overall rigour and decisiveness enough to curtail virus spread.

Western governments have been quick to roll-out funding and aid packages associated with Covid-19, in desperate attempts to make the business community and everyday citizens ‘whole’ throughout the crisis.  It has been an object of priority, and funding packages have been announced with pointed urgency.

It’s fair to ask: what’s the point of this ‘helicopter money’ without decisive action on containment?  This crisis could well last 18 months without effective containment.  Anyone familiar with the OECD fiscal situation knows that this cannot last without significant long-term economic pain.

This is the failed pincer movement that ALL western democracies have so far adopted: ineffective virus containment combined with potentially dangerous economic planning.  It’s an enormous gamble.

Who knows for sure where this will lead in the years ahead?

*******

I’ve spent 4 years on the inside of Government and am here to tell you that the state of decay is much more significant than is known by the average citizen.  We sense it, but once you see it on the inside, it’s impossible to look away.  Covid-19 is exposing it, but it has always been there, slowly eroding over time.

Here’s what I know: The system is largely unable to adapt in real-time around goals, targets and short-term emergency projects.  The vast majority of elected officials lack the depth or seriousness to manage complex dangerous situations such as this.  Furthermore, they are teamed up with legions of self-interested public professionals, whose #1 concern is the many accoutrements of privilege associated with their positions.  These people can’t be fired or replaced, even when incompetence and non-delivery is clear.  They are protected by powerful unions and labour agreements that make short term manoeuvres all but impossible.

From what I have seen, our governments are as unable to manage a budget, as their own staff or strategic direction.  This has been the case for years, and now Covid-19 is set to expose it.  Hopefully we can learn from this and build a better system for future emergencies.

The medical professionals are heroes in this situation, and there’s no doubt about that.  But do they have an effective partner in the larger government apparatus? I find it patently unfair that they are about to be run over by Covid-19, and somehow, we have failed to provide even rudimentary capacity – such as providing an effective PPE supply.  How is it that everyday citizens are doing this, by diligently hand sewing masks at home in self-isolation?  This, despite billions of dollars spent per year, and specific government organs in place to prepare for and adapt to situations like Covid-19.  And to be clear, we have already had SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1, Swine-flu, and a variety of other situations to learn from.

What we are seeing is a lack of preparedness and decisiveness that is inexcusable.

I think it’s fair to ask: are we competently led by our political masters?

Time will tell.

 

-Noel Muller

 


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