From tomorrow, restaurants and hairdressers will be able to put the pandemic shutdown behind them and reopen for business. For this decision, the prime minister is being mocked on social media. Before the decision was even formally announced, it was criticised by the doctors’ and nursing associations. And yet, Robert Abela is right, even though his government does deserve criticism.
The critics have two ways of framing the issue. One is that we should follow ‘the science’ and not the politics. But you don’t have to be an American conservative crackpot, who can’t say ‘science’ and ‘expert’ without a sneer, to see what’s wrong with that. Even an apostle of science and evidence-based policies should see that it’s misleading to speak of science.
We should be speaking about the ‘data’, the givens, of the case. There is very little that the world has been ‘given’, so far, about the nature of this virus.
We know too little about the actual rate of infections. It’s too early even to compare infection and mortality rates between countries. It is unclear, even to experts, whether by the end of the pandemic the differences will remain or whether they will even out.
When a principle can be invoked to support two opposed conclusions, it’s useless for decision-making- Ranier Fsadni
None of this means we should rubbish expertise. The experts have had to deal with ‘givens’ which were intrinsically political, not just medical.
China shared data distorted for political reasons. The WHO’s recommendations to the public on the effectiveness of masks (at least those masks with a 95 per cent effectiveness) were based on ensuring a supply of masks for medical personnel. In Europe and North America, the data gathering was shaped by logistical problems due to political-economic factors like budgeting, supply chains and infrastructure.
Irrespective of the background, the exhortation to ‘follow the data’ can be met by the retort that there is no data that offers a straightforward answer. There is only uncertainty and knowledge of risks. The decision about reopening has to be political because it is, fundamentally, about risk management: what kind of risks we’re prepared to live with.
It’s in this context that a second framing of the issue is offered: human lives must be prized over profit. That sounds reasonable only until you work out its implication: you can never reopen the economy unless a cure or vaccine is found.
Suppose that, improbably, Malta manages to eradicate COVID-19. Would that be a good time to reopen the airport and permit travel in and out of the country? This side of a vaccine, that decision would lead to a reintroduction of the virus, new infections, hospitalisations and, we must assume, some deaths. Would that be a reason to shut down the airport again?
Unless critics can point to a time when we can reopen the economy without any risk of people dying, the principle of lives before profits is a useless guide to decision-making.
Keeping the economy closed until a vaccine is found risks bringing about the very collapse of the health system that a lockdown is meant to prevent.
Some critics say that we have only one life and therefore each life should be protected at all costs. I can introduce them to an octogenarian or two who say that, precisely because they only have one life, they wouldn’t like to spend what little remains of it largely confined at home, apart from their children and grandchildren.
When a principle can be invoked to support two opposed conclusions, it’s useless for decision-making. Once more, the decision has to be based on risk management. An essential part of that is made up of what risks people are prepared to live with, and what rules and guidelines they can be expected to obey.
That doesn’t mean that there are no reality checks. Let’s be clear about what they are. There is no definitive answer ‘out there’ about when to reopen. The rightness of the decision will be determined by our own social behaviour, the good sense we show, and the government’s willingness to inhibit reckless behaviour.
Therefore, we should not make the mistake of making everything hinge on the single decision of whether to reopen or not. There is a web of decisions we need to consider.
Some of those decisions concern the conditions under which restaurants and hairdressers will reopen – seemingly minor details like no drinks at the bar but only at table. But the decision to enforce those rules, and decisions to allocate enough resources for enforcement, are also relevant.
Right now, the government can’t be trusted with enforcement. It has failed to enforce its own current rules. This weekend, to give one example, one of the prominent beaches in Marsascala was full of people openly violating the rules of social distancing.
Abela didn’t need to see the photos up on Facebook. He lives in Marsascala. I have heard, from two sources, that as Abela was out jogging someone angrily shouted at him to do something about the crowds. It was someone confined at home, giving vent to the injustice of selective enforcement. Some people’s carelessness is being allowed to increase the risks to others.
That critic was perfectly right. So are the medical personnel associations, if what they have in mind is selective enforcement, motivated by political cowardice, that is leading to unnecessary stresses on public health and on health professionals.
But the reason we can see that clearly is because we are unencumbered by false dilemmas and misleading frames of reference. Once we see the relevant decisions are irreducibly about risk management, we can distinguish between good management and bad. We can remain unimpressed by comparatively good results because we know they can be better.
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