The Brief // By Ben FrankelDecisions: Relying on the Correct Information, Finding the Right Balance

Published 29 June 2020

The reopening of the economies and the resulting – and expected – increase in the number of reported infections, have intensified, and deepened, the discussion over the economic and social lockdowns of the past three months, and the right approach in the face of more infections, let alone a second wave later in the year.

Juliet Samuel writes that the enormous costs of the lockdown so far do not mean that lockdowns will not be re-imposed – especially if a better approach to containing the more serious effects of the virus is not offered. Sweden has offered a better, “light touch” alternative, but has now come under criticism for having a higher deaths-per-million ratio relative to its Scandinavian neighbors, which opted for strict lockdowns. Carl-Johan Karlsson writes that a close examination of the Swedish case shows that it was not that the “light touch” approach was wrong, but rather that its architects have overlooked a major problem: changes made to the Swedish senior care system in the last decade left Swedish elderly exposed (3,200 of Sweden’s 5,000 deaths are over 70 years old).

There are terminological issues (does “infection” equal “sickness”?) and measurement issues (How do you find, with precision, what the R0 is?), and Ross Clark (also see here) addresses these issues.

Have political leaders got the balance right between listening to scientists and medical experts, and respectfully taking additional issues – say, the economic, social, psychological, and medical consequences of a lockdown — into account when formulating a response to the epidemic, issues beyond the scientists’ and medical experts’ remit? Because if these leaders have not done so, then they have abdicated their leadership responsibility. Alistair Haimes and Greg Weiner discuss these issues (note: keeping scientific advice and expertise in the proper perspective does not mean boorishly dismissing science and denigrating experts, as Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro has been in the habit of doing, with grave consequences for his country).

Finally, this question: Are governments and societies set up properly to deal with overlapping crises and costly catastrophes, both the low-probability, high-impact events (say, a meteorite hitting Earth; a new virus), or the slower moving but predictable (say, climate change). Arnold Kling, Philip Wallach, and the Economist argue that governments must fundamentally change the way they assess risks, prepare for them, and fashion policies to cope with and recover from them.