20 Lessons from the Covid-19 outbreak so far: Just in Case vs Just in Time?

CES-Wide blog, 29 March 2020

The Coronavirus / Covid-19 disaster has gripped the world and has led to unprecedented, far-reaching and decisive decisions. The implications for the world, for countries, regions, sectors, groups and each of us that are unknown as yet, but likely to be impactful, permanent and momentous. We speak of the ‘new normal’, accepting that things won’t be the same as before, that we actually don’t quite know what this ‘new normal’ is going to be, or whether we like it or prefer to go back to whatever we were used to.

So, here are 20 lessons for sustainable development, for us collectively and individually, that are hopefully worth considering. No order.

  1. It’s counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best we can do for society is to remove us from it. Yet as much as we can protect society from further infection by social distancing, it is only as a community that we can fight back, “flatten the curve”, develop a vaccine, organise support for the vulnerable or the poor. So we need physical distancing to stop spreading and social cooperation and collaboration to fight it.
  2. Countries respond to a very new threat based on three interrelated factors: the shape and level of preparedness (in general infrastructure, quality and redundancy of healthcare provision and past experiences with national emergencies), the current governance style, including its ability to affect change locally as well as across all sectors and sections of society, and the willingness of populations to follow government advice. This would explain the very different responses we see from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, the US and, yes, the UK. For instance, Gelfand distinguishes between tight and loose cultures. Loose cultures such as Brazil and Italy to a great extend as well as the US are less normative. In contrast, tight cultures such as Germany and Japan are used to tight social norms. How this will affect societies in South America, Africa, SouthEast Asia is unknown but things do not bode well at all.
  1. The more countries emphasised individual choices and a free-market libertarian approach to society, the more reluctant countries are to infringe on individual choices. Yet, as Hegel said, “Freedom is the recognition of necessity” and personal infringements have to be balanced afresh with civil liberties in the context of a mortal threat. In addition, adopting neoliberal models of market and corresponding society may make decision makers believe intervention is unnecessary as society will adjust, just like markets (rarely) do, or that their intervention in free markets will make matters worse. This may well lie behind Boris Johnson’s view that “there is such a thing as society”, as well as the desperation of Bolsanoro and Trump to rate protection of the economy to be superior to the protection of individuals.
  2. Resilience, preparedness or system redundancy is not a sign of inefficiency. Free-market proponents tend to favour a very reduced role of the state, typically being reduced to the regulatory essentials (ensure contracts are paid, legal deviants are penalised and some essential services are maintained, such as defense, police, building of roads and bridges. In fact, Adam Smith himself went much further when he specifically saw governments’ roles to prevent ‘leprosy or any other loathsome and offensive disease’ from spreading (Wealth of Nation, Vol 2, 1804, p 227). There is a clear juxtaposition between systemic resilience and performance efficiency, where we currently see that slimmed down supply chains that were optimised to minimise capital bound and inventory costs are incompatible with societies that demand flexibility and large inventories: The success of “Just in Time” over “Just in Case” is a market failure of systemic resilience. And does Socialism come to the rescue of Capitalism?
  3. Slimming down healthcare systems may yield short-term cost savings, but will not prepare us for sudden and radical change that may cost us more (in economic and health terms) than adopting a precautionary approach of preparedness. It remains to be seen whether preparedness and a well-supported infrastructure can compensate for a late response. It also is ample evidence that a slimmed-down healthcare system in the UK is critically ineffectual in responding to large-scale crises, where weakened healthcare and local community governance compounds a lacklustre and timid emergency response.
  4. Early intervention is decisive in fast-growing crises and require unity: The UK knew about the virus in December, there is no public evidence that anything was done with that knowledge until February. This is in stark contrast to approaches in Taiwan, Germany, Ireland, Canada, South Korea. The UK (and the US) delayed a large-scale and decisive response for 6 weeks. Countries which are deeply divided politically cannot respond quickly. The countries that were able to react are socially and politically coherent, whether because they have “strong” (often coercive) government or strong social cohesion and consensus.
  5. When it comes to responding to a pandemic, being in networks is vital, trying to isolate yourself is mortal. The cooperation across borders yields effectiveness. For example, the current bickering between Trump and US States, or the non-participation of the UK in the EU-wide effort to produce ventilators (7 weeks before the UK made plans to do the same) just shows up dysfunction where efficacy is needed. Amongst accusations that the US is diverting healthcare materials away from intended customers China, Russia, Cuba and other countries have sent several planeloads of PPE and trained hospital staff to Italy for support. Sometimes, goodwill and global cooperation pays off.
  6. The virus splits the world, but no longer into “developed” and “developing” but into “states with the ability to act” and “states with high rates of Covid-19”. There is a lot we can learn about organisational preparedness from countries we tended to see as “developing”. Countries with weak states and poor infrastructure need our help more than before, yet it is the nature of a pandemic that this help is needed domestically as well. Within countries, the virus makes social discrepancies much more difficult to ignore, with minorities being affected disproportionately more (both in infection and mortality rates but also in terms of the impact physical distancing has).
  7. Leadership is nothing if it is not supported by behaviour change and symbolic action by the leaders. Leadership is lethal if leaders are afraid to “do the right thing” simply because it causes pain.
  8. We have underestimated how social as a society we are: Local neighbourhood groups coming up and the plethora of support for the NHS (beyond the Thursday pm clapping ritual that also brought us closer to our neighbours) shows that community and social engagement is far more widespread than the “me first” narrative that business and economics implies, though it is latent. Maybe the idea of allocating resources by exclusively individual preferences needs revisiting to provide a system of market allocation by individual AND social costs and benefits? The post-Covid re-think about how we, as a society, economise cannot end with a revision of the supply chain. 
  9. E. F. Schumacher was right: A job is far more than a way to earn money. It gives us something to do, somebody to meet, somewhere and someone to be. In Sweden, this is even recognised on tombstones, which commonly tell you what the person interred did for a living. We profoundly need a society with “economics as if people mattered”. And the current discussion on who is and who is not a ‘key worker’ offering ‘essential services” is part of this. In fact, we always had this, but not all mattered the same and we tended to neglect the importance of an economic system that is subservient to us (not vice versa) and accepted that the system we had was the only one that we could have. In addition, we tended to relish jobs that were profitable far over those jobs that were valuable in terms of their contribution to society, community, personal wellbeing or usefulness. When the dust settles, we may find that employment is recognised as a value rather than a cost so that the pressure to re-employ people could be a driver towards a people-centred performance economy.
  10. Experts are really important and should be listened to much more. Decision making processes should, in all countries, transparently include the contribution from experts in all areas involved, holistically. But communicating expert evidence is much more effective if the communicators can assume a sufficient level of knowledge and understanding in the general population. This is shown starkly if you compare the approaches in Canada and the US; the difference is deeper than the personalities of the current political leaders and the outcomes are panning out very differently. Yet the way science is used (or not) in other domains that challenge our very lifestyles is similarly diverse, as can be seen in the different policy responses to climate change in Australia, Europe, the US and China. Governments trying to hide behind often misrepresented ‘’science-led’ decisions as cover for ultimately political decisions, must end – in both the Covid-crisis and the climate-crisis.
  11. The idea that education is a necessary and exclusive pre-requisite for large-scale social change is wrong. Since this argument emerged in the 1970s, we have seen radical and fundamental gradual change – the internet, computers, global transport and supply chains, complete overhaul of organisational structures. We also know much more about the rebound effect (so that change is not always going in the right direction) and have a plethora of evidence of the Value-Action Gap – yet we still keep arguing that, if we really want Sustainable Development and a change in lifestyles, we need to educate first. Evidently, even to push radical change quickly, we don’t.
  12. For decades, we also have argued that lifestyle change is difficult, and once we start asking serious questions about lifestyles, the sacrosanct trumps necessity. That has ignored that strong, decisive leadership and a recognition of the necessity of change can push very harsh behaviour changes onto everybody. So, with Climate Change already affecting far more people than the pandemic, what is it about the pandemic that gets leaders out of their “we cannot harm the voters” mode and when do they start making substantial pro-environment change in the face of the pandemic that is climate change, biodiversity loss and the other safe operating spaces? And climate change is related to this outbreak in a more direct way – there is correlational data linking mortality rates and air pollution, as well as climate change effects probably amplifying the global scale of the infection.
  13. The discussion whether we need more efficiency in the delivery of lifestyles or just very different lifestyles to achieve ‘sustainability’ has also developed an additional dimension. After years of efficiency gains, the most radical success in driving environmental impacts down is by stopping the economic activity that is polluting: Air qualities have increased, noise from transport has gone down, we see far fewer contrails in the skies etc. Given the grave challenges from air pollution in urban China, the cold light of a future review on the impact of Covid-19 must include the net-mortality of the virus – how many people will not have died because of better air quality vs how many Covid-19 victims plus the number of patients with other illnesses who could not be given life-saving healthcare?
  14. It is possible to make billions of people change their daily routine within days! If we have to, we all can change. “Making the best of what we have” is just a transition towards the ‘new normal’. We resist, complain, lament, crack jokes, make light of a dark moment but in the end, we follow rational advice that is effectively communicated provided that the consequences of not following are clear. The relatively rapid changes in response to this virus were prompted because its consequences were visible. How do we make the consequences of climate change and environmental degradation visible in that way?
  15. Organisations can adapt remarkably well: The various transformation programmes inside the NHS were hampered for years by all the usual suspects – legal constraints, adherence to the status quo, paperwork etc. Yet suddenly, a complete reorganisation of workflow and of work priorities is possible. It remains to be seen how many of the “Transformations” that were stuck in the quagmire of bureaucracy will have been implemented now, and to the benefit of all. Many companies discover the transformative effect of innovation to respond to a serious and potentially fatal threat: “brick to click” outlets, develop new supply chains, discover CSR as a way to motivate, energise and brand themselves and their colleagues. Others find technology adoption can be faster – the use of autonomous electric vehicles to transport Coronavirus tests to and from the Mayo Clinic in Florida is another example. Success is not guaranteed, but change now is a precondition for successful adaptation post crisis.
  16. What matters hugely, and what we (read: ‘I’) underestimated, is the network of social interaction and the multiplicity of social networks we all engage in. We all are social. Isolation is a serious threat to well-being. For years, we know that old-ish people suffer from isolation and loneliness. We now know how serious and meaningful that is. Yet our wholescale shift to social media is not without problems – Attention spans are shorter, we do not get as much insight and benefit from a video conference, the emotional problems of not touching, are all issues to be digested in a time when workload seems to go up for many.
  17. Covid-19 has shown us how much we are actually (in) a society and how much we enjoy, contribute and need our communities. It also has shown us up for being poorly prepared, for lack of anticipatory thinking and for having slimmed down infrastructure and “ability to respond” to a dangerous and sadly lethal extent. It also has shown us that change can be scary, but even very radical change in a very short time is possible. In so far as the crisis has led to positive reappraisals of the value of community, social capital, localism, clean air and safe streets, the window of policy opportunity to exploit this public ‘enlightenment’ for the greater good will rapidly close as soon as restrictions are lifted. At the same time (as noted by Philip Mirowski, Naomi Klein and others), powerful neoliberal forces will have oven-ready proposals to exploit the situation for their own ends and will find a receptive government. Lasting positive changes will have to be fought for – as Owen Jones recently commented.
  18. It’s not over: The UN warns of a global food shortage that can only exacerbate our globally uncoordinated efforts to fight the impact of Covid-19, and climate change is making this more difficult, despite the recent short-term environmental benefits we can see. The Australian Bushfires seem to be forgotten globally, the largest swarm of locusts for decades descending on anything edible in Africa (this is the second one in 2020, the first one has swarms of 37 miles length and 25 miles width) has not reached global attention and the current benefits are on the back of social costs the scale and duration of it we have not even begun to comprehend. The physical distancing also narrowed our focus to exclude the many pre-existing dysfunctions many of which have added to this disaster. So, it’s not over for a long time, and certainly not after the worries about a second or third infection wave have receded.

Contributions by: Prof Roland Clift; Luke Deamer; Patrick Elf; Sarah Gray; Mauro Lafratta; Simon Mair; George Martin; Steve Smith; Dr Walter Wehrmeyer