By Clara Ferreira Marques
IT’S THE WORST EPIDEMIC of our times, a health emergency that has now left more than 420,000 infected, 18,800 dead and paralyzed the global economy. The scale has been clear for weeks. All the more baffling, therefore, to watch poor decisions being repeated, over and over again.
From Italy to the US and Britain, each government first believes its country to be less exposed than it is, overestimates its ability to control the situation, ignores the real-time experience of others and ultimately scrambles to take measures.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now closed schools and imposed a lockdown to limit the lethality of the coronavirus in Britain. It’s a sharp course correction for a man who, less than a month ago, said he was shaking hands in a hospital and spoke of business as usual, while Italy was pulling down the shutters.
He’s not alone. With populism in the ascendant, leaders from US President Donald Trump to Indonesia’s Joko Widodo have worried about immediate political concerns first, rather than the impending pandemic. Countries that have successfully learned from others and from past experience, say, Taiwan, are far outnumbered by those apparently incapable of taking lessons even from near-neighbors.
It’s not as simple as poor governance. The shortcuts that humans use to make decisions in a crisis underlie how hard it is to adapt policy to fast-changing circumstances.
At the most basic level, the explanation is simple: We make decisions based on past experience and recognized patterns. Countries that have done best at containing the virus so far have the experience of dealing with previous outbreaks. That includes Hong Kong and Singapore in the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS; and South Korea with Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.
For governments outside Asia, the same error of decision-making, or cognitive bias, has been less helpful. For them, SARS was a disease that they could see was devastating but also less contagious, confined to a different region and over within months. They also think of flu. That’s easily transmitted, but much less lethal. Their experiences suggested drastic early action was unnecessary.
Compounding this is that superficial differences blind us to the fact that an experience elsewhere could be useful for policy at home, points out Nick Chater, professor of behavioral science at Warwick Business School. In the current outbreak, China was seen as too dissimilar — politically, socially, even ethnically — for the virus to be quickly considered a coming problem that might merit a response.
Italy, the first Western country to be floored by the illness, initially resisted wide-ranging closures. In late February, as town-level lockdowns were beginning, one party leader urged people to go out for drinks, coffee, or pizza: “Let’s not lose our customs.” He later contracted the virus.
This held even as the situation worsened across Europe. France was edging toward a Paris lockdown, eventually announced March 16, but across the channel, Britain still held horse races and music concerts, sticking to a policy of so-called herd immunity that requires the majority of people to get infected and recover. It took an Imperial College report, laying bare the human cost, to change minds at the top. The scramble to prepare backup plans for UK schools and other services suggests it was never considered a real possibility — until it was.
The failure of empathy doesn’t happen at just cabinet level. When I spoke from my home in Hong Kong to relatives in Europe a few weeks ago, they struggled to comprehend that what was hitting us in Asia could reach them and change their daily lives. It did. Writ large, that has dramatic consequences, not least the waste of months when tests and protective equipment could have been prepared. Entire policy options are off the table because the epidemic has spread too far.
Narratives that build on national exceptionalism don’t help, clouding the response of even Southeast Asian countries to the experiences of neighbors. Populist tendencies that encourage confirmation bias and our preference for omission discourages decisions that may have painful outcomes today — even if not doing anything produces a worse result. Populists, after all, don’t want to be unpopular. That partly explains the tendency of Trump, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and others to downplay the threat. Bolsonaro continues to compare the virus to “a little cold.”
It makes little sense to worry about a temporary downturn when the worst-case could involve permanently wiping out a significant portion of your population. That makes basic distancing measures, in the words of St. Louis Federal Reserve President James Bullard, an investment in survival. But it’s tough to act out of proportion with what people see in front of them compared to what they might be dealing with tomorrow.
There’s another unhelpful proclivity, explains Donald Low, professor of practice in public policy at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology: an optimism bias that leads to myopia in times of crisis. This is especially true for the usually successful governments of wealthy nations, rarely presented with debacles on this scale. Often, there is an illusion of control.
Humans don’t like to change their minds. Consider the rabbit-duck illusion, used by psychologist Joseph Jastrow and cited by Chater in a recent article. Once I see a duck in the image, I can’t see a rabbit, and I won’t see both. In a pandemic, this can be very bad news, especially if supranational organizations that should foster wider thinking are largely absent.
There are glimmers of hope. Local authorities and companies have been nimble in places like Brazil and the US, apparently able to switch from rabbit to duck. More policy makers will need to set in place the defenses, with better advice and transparency, to ensure they do the same.