Lessons from missteps of democratic governments amid pandemic

March 31, 2021 10:07
One of Germany’s recent missteps was to suspend AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccinations just when a third wave of the pandemic was beginning. Photo: Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hasty revocation of a hastily announced Easter lockdown was surprising, even shocking, given her ever-calm demeanor. Even more extraordinary was the apology she issued to parliament: “The mistake is mine and mine alone. Because in the end, I bear responsibility as chancellor. I regret it deeply, and I ask our citizens for forgiveness.”

Merkel was right to reverse course. The proposed lockdown, agreed at a lengthy late-night conference of German regional government leaders, would have shut down vital supply chains and created chaos in food shops ahead of the sudden closure. The move might have cost not just money but lives.

Few governments have been as candid as Merkel’s about their own limitations. Around the world, the pandemic has laid bare the problems democracies face when they respond to complex and rapidly changing situations. When governments are forced to make so many decisions, some inevitably will appear unfair, mistaken, or both.

Decisions on travel restrictions, lockdown rules, or vaccine prioritization are bound to embody some degree of arbitrariness. Everyone agrees that essential workers should be exempt from lockdowns, but not everyone agrees on how “essential” should be defined. Are teachers essential workers? Beyond hospital personnel, which other medical workers should be included? Cosmetic surgeons might perform vanity procedures, but they might also be needed after a horrendous accident. All distinctions are sure to breed envy and distrust.

Travel policies, too, can produce their own absurdities, especially when exceptions are made for the influential and the well connected. The United Kingdom, for example, recently instituted a complete travel ban, but exempted “essential” business travel. Accordingly, some suddenly deemed it essential to look after property abroad. The “Stanley Johnson loophole” was born, so named for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s father, who had justified traveling to Greece on these grounds.

Vaccinations are even more problematic. There is a strong case for vaccinating nursing-home residents and their caregivers, because the elderly are especially vulnerable and the virus spreads easily in shared living quarters. But there is also a strong case for vaccinating young and mobile people who are more likely to circulate widely, potentially becoming super spreaders.

The overarching question is how such choices should be made. Should people vote on them, or fill out opinion surveys? This approach would simply mobilize some demographic groups against others, because everyone would vote for their own interests. Complicating matters further is the issue of comorbidities, which are often a decisive factor in whether the virus proves fatal. The most common of these – obesity, high blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes – come in different degrees of severity, and affect some demographic groups disproportionately. In some US states, current and former smokers (with practically no elevated risk) can jump the line.

It is equally difficult to make quick assessments of complex scientific data, especially when there is so much pressure to produce and deploy safe and effective vaccines as fast as possible. To raise any doubts about safety is to invite anti-vaccine skepticism and resistance. Another of Germany’s recent missteps was to suspend AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccinations just when a third wave of the pandemic was beginning.

Democratic governments also bear the additional burden of having to confront past mistakes. New York’s attempt to free up space in hospitals by sending infected old people to nursing homes turned out to be a major cause of the initial surge in mortality (UK health authorities followed a similar path). When those responsible – namely New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – appear to be covering up the mistake, they discredit government in general. No wonder the pandemic has deepened partisan divisions and sown even more distrust in fundamental principles of democracy.

There are no easy answers. But the COVID-19 crisis may offer two generalizable lessons. First, the more rules-based the system, the more robustly it can manage criticism. Lockdowns driven by clear, predetermined criteria are one straightforward way to contain not just the virus but also the ensuing blame and cynicism.

Second, the problem of vaccine scarcity and unfair allocation can most obviously be addressed by producing as many doses as possible. With abundance comes patience – and less resentment of those who gain earlier access.

True, states cannot produce abundance on their own. The miracle of the rapid vaccine development depended on a substantial number of companies engaging in a competitive process with a clear set of incentives. Other companies focused on producing anti-viral drugs, and no one knew who would succeed and who would hit a dead end. No government planner following mere intuition could have made all of the right choices with the knowledge that was available.

The correct course, embodied in Operation Warp Speed in the United States, was to provide federal government funding and pre-purchase agreements for a wide range of experimental efforts carried out by private businesses.

These two approaches – a rules-based framework and incentives for competition – look like classic answers to the old question of how states should involve themselves in complex economic and social processes. Both emphasize the need for universality, rather than discretionary decisions that inevitably produce arbitrary results. The closer the adherence to principle, the less need there is for frenzied late-night policy debates – or apologies.

Copyright: Project Syndicate
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Professor of History at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.