I’m not a coronavirus expert. Trade, economics and politics is my field. I had to look up the spelling of epidemiologist for this article and I’m definitely not one. But just as trade deals are about far more than trade, so it is with coronavirus, as we’re all learning. Obviously the disease, the spread, vaccines, treatments, recovery periods, the chances of second waves. The action plans, the way globally governments are trying to prepare, to treat, to stop the spread. Then the messaging, the way people get their news, the way governments involve the wider community, about leadership. Also about the knock on effects we’re going to see into the economy, and the future of globalisation.
In other words, the big picture of coronavirus is big indeed. Almost unfathomable. But that is what we, and more importantly governments, have to consider. Because it is so vast there is some tolerance for government errors from the population and political opponents alike. We are dependent on our governments to get this right, and hope they will do so. Perfection isn’t possible, but at least doing and being seen to do a good enough job is crucial. This is where the UK government is entering into a risk zone, seemingly out of step with other countries, being dragged to action by what we read of other countries on social media, not really thinking proposed policy interventions or communications through.
It is even a challenge to set out what governments should do given the task, but this would be my starting point, offered in part because most of what I see focuses on individual elements.
First, appreciate the scale of the challenge. It isn’t hyperbole to describe the coronavirus outbreak as the biggest global crisis in modern history. Individual countries have had to cope with disease outbreaks spreading fear and economic turmoil before. But we haven’t seen this on a global scale, affecting all developed economies, before. We’ve all been slow to recognise that this is something new, a relatively easily transmitted disease with no vaccination and no known cure for many, causing huge stresses to individuals and health systems, containment of which has only so far come at as yet unknown cost to the modern economy. On top of which the power of modern communication means individuals watching what is happening globally in real time.
Next, adapt government to the sole purpose of coronavirus management. There is simply no space in any government’s attention span for other priorities, whether that is local elections in France or UK-EU trade talks. Keeping people safe has to be the first priority of any government, and that’s a huge job right now in terms of health, stress, and the economy. Making sure the health service is ready for the number of cases with the right equipment and staff, managing the flow of cases as much as possible, working globally to develop vaccines and effective treatments, ensuring the shops have food and all other vital supplies, ensuring individuals can survive the economic downturn from actions in this country and elsewhere such as bans on travel or entertainment, helping businesses survive equally, particularly protecting the vulnerable, and doubtless much more. At the heart of government this will mean a huge number of daily decisions, throughout the government machinery any number of streams of work with likely reduced resources.
Recognise there will be no such thing as an easy decision in this context, which means government has to be open to challenge and willing to consult widely. Close schools to reduce transmission and many key workers will have to stay home, and many children go to stay with grandparents most vulnerable to disease. Suggest introducing quarantine restrictions and expect panic buying, which is a rational response if you think you’ll be staying home for a while. Propose isolating the over 70s and wonder how they will get their provisions, what will happen to those living with families, and whether the resource starved social care sector will cope. The economic impacts of who to help by how much at what time will be equally difficult, as will the decisions with regard to individuals whose income will suddenly diminish markedly.
Communicate well and regularly, reassuring the public, but keeping in step with them. Pretty much every conversation I have or hear in recent days is dominated by coronavirus. I find myself wondering whether anyone has yet found a treatment, whether pasta will be back on the shelves tomorrow, and when the UK will follow other countries and go into lockdown. Government has to be at the forefront of these conversations, reassuring us that they are ahead of us on all matters, answering the questions, and in particular being clear about any aspect in which we differ from any other country. There can be good reasons, but when you have a fearful population and another country has closed the schools and we haven’t they better be very good reasons, well communicated. Saying the scientists have recommended something isn’t enough. It is probably going to make daily or even more frequent press conferences. But as per earlier, this is in line with the scale of the challenge.
Last and very definitely least, understand that this outbreak could well have long lasting impacts on globalisation, but for the time being simply use global cooperation where possible. With all countries concerned for their own security global cooperation is not going to be easy, but it has to be done, not least as we’ll all suffer repeated waves of disease unless all countries can access vaccines and treatments. There are so many border closures right now that summits are going to be virtual, but they have to happen. Information on how each country is treating and managing the situation must be shared. As to the future, it is far too early to tell, but there is already talk about the number of vulnerabilities in the global economy that have been exposed, and national sentiments have clearly come to the fore. Our global institutions are struggling to deal with the interconnected yet nationalistic world, but even after a crisis resolution of this may be impossible.
Things may change quickly, treatments found, normal life restored. We can go back to our sport, pubs, and theories about new global institutions. But until this happens this is not business as usual, in any sense. This is a unique challenge for any government. I hope to see responses.