What we’ve learnt during the pandemic
The pandemic has provided us with many insights, and it’s important we remember these as and when we enter our recovery. Many of the insights are not new. We have learnt – and subsequently forgotten – these lessons before, as we’ve recovered from past crises. The fact that these are old truths should make them more powerful, as if we’ve been able to tap into some long-lost wisdom. But it is extra important that we don’t lose sight of the lessons this time around.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us – again – that we’re all connected. Health is a not just a private matter, of concern only to an individual and their family. Health is a public concern. What happens in the community impacts all of us. All the private health insurance in the world can’t protect us if the public health system is not up to the task of containing the virus, or if significant numbers of people fail to comply with public health directions.
The importance of public health was revealed starkly during the Spanish flu. Yet it was soon forgotten, as medicine became obsessed with a focus on individualised treatments. When we move on from COVID-19, our challenge will be to remember that health is a public concern, not just a matter for individuals, and that investment in a strong healthcare system needs to be sustained. We’ve also learnt that what happens around the world impacts us at home. The virus might have originated in China, but the extent to which the virus was allowed to grow exponentially and spread around the world was a function of how other countries responded. It’s likely that only when most of the world’s population is vaccinated will we be able to truly say that the pandemic is over.
How well we cooperate at a global level is critically important – whether through the sharing of early intelligence on emerging infectious diseases, developed nations lending support for global vaccination or even sharing approaches to post-conflict reconstruction in places such as Syria. Getting it right at the global scale benefits us all.
Might we take this lesson and draw parallels with other global crises, such as climate change? We all breathe the same air; a warming earth impacts us all. No matter what action we take at home, in the absence of a global response climate change will continue to worsen. It’s in everyone’s interest that each country makes a bold and constructive contribution to the global response. As we scoured the supermarket shelves searching for toilet paper that wasn’t there, it no doubt occurred to many us that some parts of our existence are more fragile than we thought, more vulnerable to shocks. While globalisation has contributed to enormous economic growth and price reductions, it has been accompanied by long and complex supply chains, with components being shipped back and forth across the globe. A ‘just in time’ approach means that only small quantities of stock are stored in warehouses. Consequently, disruption to air and sea freight movements means that shortages in even one component can disrupt supply. In many countries, stockpiles of essential medical equipment were inadequate, and there were shortages of masks.
In Australia, there was no shortage of food, but disruptions to imported packaging meant many products could not be supplied to consumers. At times, it was hard to find a bag of rice or a jar of pasta sauce.
We’ve also experienced the consequences of the inequality that pervades our society. Precarious and underpaid work served only to exacerbate the pandemic. Lacking sick leave and needing to feed their families, some attended work while sick. Factory labourers took second jobs as Uber drivers. Multiple generations of the same family could not keep their distance in overcrowded housing. All of these factors create opportunities for the virus to spread to vulnerable groups. All crises expose the fault lines in society, and this pandemic has been no different.
We’ve learnt that at times like this, it’s actually quite important to have a competent government. Competent government is perhaps a boring concept and is largely invisible much of the time.
We understand its value most clearly when it is absent. Countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States have been characterised by flip-flops in public health advice, botched test and trace regimes, and chaotic and ever-changing lockdown arrangements. Furthermore, certain US leaders catered to populist sentiment and opposed the mask mandates recommended by experts.
Competent governments rely on the existence of institutions that have the capacity and authority to do things properly. These institutions need to have the staff, expertise, resources and powers to respond to complex situations. To be effective, they also need to be supported with a legal and political culture that is committed to public administration. Political leaders that value public administration have been critical during our most recent crisis.
Smaller units of government have proven to be particularly important during the crisis. Many smaller jurisdictions – such as New Zealand, Taiwan, Iceland and Australia – have been remarkably successful in containing the virus. In federations, state and provincial governments have played an important leadership role.
Small nations and state governments have often been more agile than their larger counterparts, better equipped to develop a rapid policy response. New Zealand, for example, moved quickly to close its borders in March 2020 and implemented snap lockdowns when cases were detected. Iceland has used science to contain the virus. From the first days of the pandemic, it has tracked the health of every person who tested positive for COVID-19 and sequenced the genetic material of each positive test. Governments and citizens have a symbiotic relationship.
During a crisis, people need to trust experts, governments and one another. In the absence of trust, governments find it much more challenging to respond competently. But the incompetence of government is likely to further undermine trust, leading to a downward spiral of declining trust and poorly functioning government. Trust and capable public sectors are national assets that need to be nurtured over many years.
The pandemic has shown us what can happen when they are left to wither.
Recovery: How we can create a better, brighter future after a crisis is out now.