Revenge of the “risk society”
In practice, risk-based testing and policies face a host of political and social problems. After all, if a black or minority population has a higher incidence of infection, would focusing on them be racist? Lack of empirical data leads to political, social or sometimes just inexplicable discrimination. Many countries and people feared Asians at the start of the crisis because an Asian origin was the only inference available. Without data, the only recourse was one-size-fits all policies. Everyone gets their temperature taken, not just Asians.
Some see more nefarious, or at least negligent, intentions behind one-size-fits-all quarantines, face-mask wearing and other measures applied indiscriminately across an entire jurisdiction. The Covid-19 crisis brings to mind the concept of the risk society, which sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens described as the way in which a modern community responds to risk, with a limited group of influential people deciding the allocation of risk’s costs. Usually, those blanket policies have “asymmetric costs” such as senior policymakers and other privileged persons still collecting a paycheck, while small business owners do not.
The widespread decision not to use risk-based means of testing and treating Covid-19 outbreaks points to the incentives driving our risk society. Necessarily existing polices do not pave the way for an ever-expanding state control over our lives. Yet, the US’s failure to rope in millions of unemployed to fight the crisis – rather than just subsidize millions at home – does have very real economic impacts and implications. Providing social protection through digital payments can seem heartless, given that many middle-class people or those who eschew e-banking or citizens that live abroad do not use these platforms or are unable to access them.
The need for targeted risk-based solutions
No doctor treats a patient before he or she administers tests. Yet billions of patients underwent the indiscriminate social treatment of a lockdown before any testing. Much of the data accumulated and analyzed during this pandemic consisted of hearsay and post-infection hospital visits, which is hardly a healthy basis for establishing risk baselines.
The risk-society approach will remain. Yet only by quantifying the risks through risk-based testing and then applying risk-based treatment can we hope to avoid the unintentional side effects of our coronavirus policies.