We are all learning about identifying and managing risks as the world struggles to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. Many of us have learned to practice social isolation and accepted other extreme measures to deal with a risk that spread faster than the responses of our national governments. But beyond this public-health emergency, we are facing a crisis of international cooperation. Instead of uniting to tackle common challenges, leaders are doubling down on the politics of division and tribalism, eroding trust in government, institutions and experts, slinging blame and spreading conspiracy theories.
Sometimes we choose to ignore risks, even when they are looming in front of our eyes. For decades, climate scientists have been warning about the risks of climate change, yet the world has made very little progress in reducing the risks. We had a wake-up call in Australia at the beginning of the year. Months before the catastrophic bushfires, in April 2019, emergency services chiefs from all Australian states and territories tried to warn Prime Minister Scott Morrison of an approaching fire disaster as a result of record hot and dry conditions. Morrison, who leads a government that lags the world in acting against climate change, and who famously brandished a lump of coal in parliament, refused to meet them. When the summer arrived, disastrous fires swept the nation, entirely as predicted by the experts. The fires were a clear signal that we must get much more serious about working together to confront climate change.
Meanwhile in December, when a Wuhan doctor, Li Wenliang, shared information in a chatgroup with other doctors about a possible new coronavirus (from which he later died), the initial response of local police was to accuse him of “spreading rumors”. Li’s concerns should have triggered the direct reporting system set up after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic in the early 2000s to immediately alert authorities to a new infectious disease, but the system clearly did not work as intended. The delay did not just affect China, which later implemented unprecedented containment measures in close cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO), but became a threat to people around the world. A virus knows no national borders, and neither should expert scientific advice.
Crisis management in crisis
In a crisis, the first thing we must do is listen to experts, who are best positioned to assess risks and recommend proportionate actions. Equally, with longer-term challenges we must also listen to those with relevant expertise, to avoid future crises.
Expertise, however, is under unprecedented attack. Populist leaders across the world have for decades undermined trust in public institutions, waging ideological culture wars against universities, public broadcasters and other evidence-based organizations, maligned as “elites” and starved of resources. Yet at a time of crisis it is precisely these organizations to which we turn for facts and sound advice.
One of the puzzles in identifying risks, and then cooperating to avoid or minimize them, is that often we just see things differently. Politicians who resist taking action against climate change, like the Australian prime minister, see bigger short-term risks to industries that will not survive a move to zero net emissions, while hoping technology will solve the problem in the long run.
The Wuhan police saw a bigger short-term risk of social panic about something that had not yet been established to be a new coronavirus. In retrospect, we may determine first responses were wrong, but variation in how we assess risk is perfectly human. Sadly, so is local political game playing in any system. That means for global risks we need robust international cooperation to ensure we hear the advice of experts and not just the ideologues.
We have plenty of experience in devising systems of international cooperation to predict and minimize risks. When we take a commercial airline flight, we place our trust in the international rules and practices of aviation that have proven over decades to be highly reliable to ensure we arrive safely at our destination. While we are aware that there is a small chance of something going wrong, say a technical fault or terrorist attack, we know these risks are as close as possible to zero because of the protective systems designed and implemented by professionals in whose hands we feel safe.
We have even eliminated some risks. The hole in the ozone layer, for example, was closed by concerted international action to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were previously widely used in refrigerators. In both the development of the aviation industry and in the elimination of CFCs, risks were self-evident, we listened to expert advice and we developed a global consensus for action to reduce the risks. We set new global rules and we have followed those rules to stay safe. As we are seeing in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, people will change behavior to remain safe but, when needed, can we rely on international cooperation to develop new rules to avoid the risks we will face in the future?