by Tom Evslin
“Lock it all down,” the epidemiologists said. They were correct that, the less people left their houses, the less the disease would spread.
“How will food get to their houses?” we can imagine leaders asking.
“There will have to be few essential exceptions,” we can imagine an epidemiologist responding.
“And those would be?” Not a question to ask the epidemiologists. Outside their area of expertise. No criticism of them; we should expect experts to be narrowly focused on their area of expertise.
If you were a mayor or a governor or a head of state who must make immediate decisions in the face of a new pandemic, you have two choices: 1) just listen to the epidemiologists – a strategy which allows you to claim that you made the expert-endorsed decisions regardless of the outcome; 2) as quickly as you can, consult as wide a variety of experts in different fields like logistics, food supply, energy, and waste removal, talk to people whose thinking (as opposed to expertise you trust) and make the best decision you can at warp speed.
The first approach gives you the political cover that you listened to THE experts and THE science. You can claim that you are “acting from an excess” of caution. You will be tempted to stick with this decision even in the face of adverse effects like lost years of schooling, an economy in tatters without unsustainable subsidies, a rising suicide rate etc. etc. China is sticking to its lockdown policy despite people starving in their homes. How can you not do what the experts in infectious disease said to do?
If you take the second approach and do the best job you can of balancing the recommendations of experts in diverse fields, you are in the short term more vulnerable to second guessing. You, the non-expert, made the final decision. You will have to monitor results and almost assuredly adjust policy as both the virus and the society react and mutate in unpredictable ways. Experts from different fields (sometimes in the same field) will continue to disagree. You will be blamed for every death. You will be blamed for the demise of every business which you did not deem essential. And you will have done what leaders are chosen to do, synthesized the best advice you can get, acted, observed, and modified your actions.
Gov. Scott (R -VT and the second most popular governor in the country) took mainly the second approach and Vermont avoided the worst results of the pandemic in terms of mortality and also avoided the worst effects of an “excess of caution” – our schools reopened relatively early. Trump actually took a third course at first – he tried to wish the pandemic away. But he shut down international travel early and was accused of xenophobia (of which he is guilty in general), then was accused of acting too late. Recent “expert opinion” is that shutting down travel always amounted to locking the barn door while the horse galloped down the street. Some governors like Newsome in California took the “epidemiologist” approach of very tight lockdowns; others like DeSantis in Florida kept their economies largely opened.
We saw surges of Covid first in the mainly blue states with strict measures. Before the partisan gloating was over, the virus surged in the red states. Now, although much less virulent, it’s been back strong on the coasts again. Florida’s age-adjusted death rate is a tiny bit better than that of California. Florida’s unlocked economy has fared better.
The danger is that we see all this through partisan lenses and don’t learn the lesson we need for the next emergency. There is no simple “the science” according to which a leader can govern. There is no one type of expert who can make overall policy from the narrow perch of his or her expertise (sorry, Dr. Fauci). We must do our best to elect competent, calm people to executive positions and hope that they encourage a clash of expertise and opinion before making decisions, then monitor the results and change course as often as necessary.
The author, an author, entrepreneur, former Vermont state cabinet officer, lives in Stowe. He founded NG Advantage, a natural gas truck delivery company. This commentary is republished with permission from his blog, Fractals of Change.