As 2020 ends it is a good moment to reflect on the learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst I understand a bit of optimism wrt. the vaccines can help boost morale, it would be a vile act to make the millions of casualties useless by not conducting an honest and truthful exercise to find out what went wrong. From this, we must change the way we manage global catastrophic risks, it’s going to happen again. And it will be worse.
I know, this is a blog about emergency management in the workplace and how to use technology to make it safer but the topic of existential risk is much more important. And the fact is there will be no emergencies to manage if the next catastrophe wipes us out of here. The clock is ticking.
So allow me to explain why this was a case of unpreparedness for an emergency and what policy makers should learn from it.
It was an Emergency
Yes, the pandemic was an emergency. Because it required a response that was not obvious and time was of the essence. And because the consequences of not managing it properly were catastrophic. And we failed.
The alarm was triggered late
The WHO failed to alert the world about its severity on time. They also failed to provide direction on it’s nature and how to manage it (remember the statements on masks not being necessary?). Did they not know or did they prefer to not know? The fact that Mr Tedros Adhanom (Director-General of the World Health Organisation) hasn’t been dismissed leads me to think that he actually did some of his job reasonably well in the eyes of the WHO funding entities. The problem seems to be, his job wasn’t only to ensure world’s health but also to manage WHO stakeholders’ interests. Here you can see the list of the pre-COVID WHO contributors. He probably made some of these contributors moderately happy or else he wouldn’t still be the Director-General. I do hope though I’m wrong and it is just a matter or months and he’s relieved from his duties in 2021.
We weren’t ready
Not only didn’t the WHO trigger the alarm soon enough, also we weren’t prepared to face pandemics:
- No foresight: Late understanding of the severity of the situation
- No efficient early containment: Chinese lunar new-year where 5 million people left Wuhan before the start of the travel ban on 23/01/2020
- Shortage of medical supplies (e.g. respirators)
- Shortage of PPE (e.g. face masks)
I know there’s this thing call hindsight bias, where events seem obvious after they occur and we believe the experts should’ve identified them before. But this bias cannot be a ‘get out of jail free’ card for all catastrophes, and there is reasonable evidence to suggest the WHO messed up big-time here (e.g. check this book, especially Chapter 20 on bio-technology and bio-security.)
Root Cause? We don’t know yet
When Australia called for a joint investigation into the origins of the pandemic, the Chinese government reacted as if attacked since in doing so “it hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” (Wang
Xining, deputy head of mission at China’s embassy in Australia). Surely the Chinese people also want the matter to be fully investigated TO PREVENT RECURRENCE. I struggle to understand how I’m required to investigate workplace incidents within two weeks and the biggest pandemic in the last 100 years still has no clear root cause. The conclusion is clear: it’ll happen again.
If you ask me, these would be my three take-aways from 2020:
- WE’RE NOT READY for all global catastrophic risks and it’s not anybody’s priority. The public agenda seems now focused on climate change (?) which is well and good, but one has to wonder why a pandemic should increase our awareness on carbon emissions as opposed to, well, pandemics! And what about nanotechnology? And gene-editing? Artificial intelligence anybody? Super-volcanism? Solar flares? Affordable weapons technology?
- Supra-national government entities like the WHO are complex organisations with multiple interests not obvious to the layman. This complexity impacts in their efficiency (e.g. see here the WHO’s values for example, do you think they meet them?)
- As technology advances, it becomes more likely that either an error or some intended consequence of the research project creates a global hazards constituting a catastrophic risk (in this interview Nick Bostrom explains it really well.) The Fermi paradox only makes sense to me after you consider this risk of technological development.
What can you do? I’d recommend getting ready on a local level if you can (e.g. food security) and RAISE AWARENESS with your family and friends to hopefully make it a widespread conversation topic which governments (especially democracies focused on the short-term) consider when setting policies.
Good luck and all the best for 2021!