Our diagnosis, not as medical experts but as students of leadership, is that many leaders stumbled in the fundamental step of determining the nature of the challenge they faced and identifying the different kinds of thinking that had to be brought to bear on it at different points.
In the early weeks of 2020, Covid-19 presented itself as a scientific problem, firmly in the epistemic realm. It immediately raised the kinds of questions to which absolute right answers can be found, given enough data and processing power: What kind of virus is it? Where did it come from? How does transmission of it happen? What are the characteristics of the worst-affected people? What therapies do most to help? And that immediate framing of the problem caused leaders — and the people they influence — to put enormous weight on the guidance of epistemic thinkers: namely, scientists. (If one phrase should go down in history as the mantra of 2020, it is “follow the science.”)
In the U.K., for example, this translated to making decisions based on a model produced by researchers at Imperial College. The model used data collected to date to predict how the virus would spread in weeks to come (quite inaccurately, unfortunately). At the frequent meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies there was one government official in attendance, and early on, he tried to inject some practical and political considerations into the deliberations. He was promptly put in his place: He was only there to observe. Indeed, members expressed shock that someone from the world of hashing out policy would try to have influence on “what is supposed to be an impartial scientific process.”
But the reality was that, while scientific discovery was an absolutely necessary component of the response, it wasn’t sufficient, because what was happening at the same time was an escalation of the situation as a social crisis. Very quickly, needs arose for tough thinking about trade-offs — the kind of political deliberation that considers multiple dimensions and is informed by different perspectives (Aristotle’s phronetic thinking). Societies and organizations desperately needed reliable processes for arriving at acceptable balances between factors of human well-being too dissimilar to plug into neat equations. Pandemic response was not, as it turned out, a get-the-data-and-crunch-the-numbers challenge — but since it had been cast so firmly as that at the outset, it remained (and remains) centered in that realm. As a result, leaders were slow to begin addressing these societal challenges.
Jeffrey Tucker offers a pandemic reading list . A slice:
The History of Public Health , by Paul Rosen. This fascinating treatise was first published in 1958 and reissued in 1993 with new material. It is a wonderful introduction to the whole concept of public health and how it evolved through the centuries. A major theme of the book is how poor understanding of disease dominated public health from the ancient world through the 19th century. Ignorance and fear led to a run-from-the-miasma mentality. Once the science of cell biology improved, so too did public health.
The last bout of medieval-style brutality toward disease was in 1918, after which public health got very very serious and swore that nothing like that would happen again. The turning point occurred when it became clear that large-scale collective efforts to beat back and hide from pathogens were futile and tremendously harmful. Instead, disease is something to be managed by doctors and their patients. The job of public health became to focus on clean sanitation and water and otherwise give a message of calm, and clear recommendations to people in light of medical resources.
William Parker understandably fears that what David Hart calls “hygiene socialism” is here to stay – meaning that humanity is destined to be tyrannized in the name of protecting our physical health . A slice:
Outside of large factors, small things in our lives with be transformed. Masks will remain, workplaces will now opt for online work instead of the office space and governments will demand we be cautious at all times in regards to catching illnesses – even after COVID-19 is defeated. The police have been emboldened, and the public have shown that they will automatically consent to the stripping of liberties if they are told it is for the right reasons.
We have to ask ourselves what powers will be given back, and what precedent this sets for the state and the police in our everyday lives. It’s clear, from whatever angle you view it from, that the pandemic has changed everything and there will never be the ‘normal’ we once knew again.
A headline from the Financial Times: “Covid infection shown to provide as much immunity as vaccines” . Here’s the report’s opening paragraph:
People who have already contracted coronavirus are as protected against reinfection as those who have received the best Covid-19 vaccines, according to a survey of 20,000 UK healthcare workers, the largest study in the world so far.