(Image: EPA/Li Ke)

It’s been a year since COVID-19 made headlines. Since then, the pandemic has changed everything we thought we knew about managing a crisis.

About 100 million people around the world have been infected with the deadly virus; more than 2 million have died. The long-term health effects are still being discovered. Vaccines are starting to be administered, but the rollout process is complicated.

In some cases, countries with more evolved resources have fared worse than those with fewer resources. Nations with similar governments and demographics have had vastly different outcomes. Pandemic playbooks have been thrown out the window.

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How we predicted the pandemic would play out was completely wrong.

A major report, led by a team based at Harvard, Cornell and Arizona State universities involving more than 60 researchers from around the world argue we’ve been using the wrong metrics this entire time.

Questions about which country did best at managing the crisis and producing the best outcomes are misplaced — they are too narrow in focus and are being asked too early to understand the full ramifications of the virus, the authors argue.

Although a Lowy report ranked Australia as the gold standard for COVID management, the American report raises questions about just how well we’re actually doing.

It also outlines five key fallacies policymakers need to ditch when COVID 2.0 rolls around.

How will we know who did well?

A country’s success will hinge on how the interlinked systems of public health, the economy and politics responded to the crisis, the report argues.

Just as the virus found and exacerbated pre-existing medical conditions in individual bodies, so the pandemic found and revealed pre-existing weaknesses in the body politic, exploiting and aggravating them.

Wherever there were structural weaknesses in the health, economic, and political systems when the pandemic began, the difficulties of coping with the virus significantly worsened them.

We have only so many tools to battle an infectious disease, and countries used the same suite of measures: targeting the virus, and targeting social practices

The first strategy often focused on a silver bullet solution, be it a vaccine or border bubble. The second was more controversial, especially as populations became fatigued with strict rules on social gatherings.

How effective these strategies were depended largely on how cohesive a government was, and how much its constituents trusted its leaders. The report placed countries’ responses in three categories: control, consensus, chaos.

Taiwan — which learnt from SARS and swine flu and quickly coordinated information and resources, a generous stimulus package and had high political approval ratings — was a control country.

Germany and Australia — which achieved support for social democratic responses through coalitions between political parties, from science-driven responses, and helping companies retain workers — were consensus countries.

The US and India were chaos countries. Political parties were polarised and the pandemic was used to push dangerous rhetoric — such as in India, where the pandemic was blamed on Muslim minorities.

What we thought we knew

A playbook can manage a plague

Policymakers assume when following a set game plan that key figures will play the part assigned to them. But if politics change, different games are played. The US, for example, disregarded the ebola playbook — with Republicans wrongly accusing the Obama administration of never providing one.

In an emergency, politics takes a backseat to policy

During a pandemic, pre-existing issues in a country’s economy or political system are amplified. Countries where the political parties generally get along tended to act in solidarity; others that have a deep divide between ethnic or socio-economic groups or political parties saw a distrust in government elites and rifts between groups grow.

Indicators of success and failure are clear

How groups measure success was constantly contested. In Australia there were debates about whether the hit to the economy was worth extending the lifespan of those in aged care. What’s deemed an important measure changed over the course of the pandemic and were tied to political decisions.

Science advisers enable policymakers to choose the best policies

Even in science, experts are often divided with technical knowledge subject to interpretation. Populations which trusted official advice were more likely to trust their governments.

Distrust in public health advice reflects scientific illiteracy

No one is certain about what they’re talking about. Health officials debate facts, and predictions and advice change. But vaccine hesitancy is often born from real history — such as minority groups being used as medical guinea pigs. Vaccine hesitancy among Black people in the US is higher than the general population. Across the 1900s, Black men were left untreated for syphilis even when treatment became available as part of a medical study.

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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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