Until this past year, “models”, “ranges” and “worst-case” were terms previously absent from political speeches. Along with these new terms, the pandemic has brought a new type of advisor to daises of leaders worldwide.
Politicians are now being publicly guided by scientists in developing pandemic strategies. “Following the science” and “data based” are phrases which have tumbled from the most unlikely of lips. But public policy has clearly benefitted as the chemistry of science and imminent has elevated national leadership to the standards necessary to directly serve the public good.
Not only is the language different but the metrics are completely new. Gone are GDP, rate of growth and all of the terms of monetization used to describe the commercial economy. The metrics used now are those which represent the health of the people of the country in real terms. “Masks”, “ventilators”, “doctors”, “nurses” and “hospital beds” are real physical components of the health system which is struggling to maintain the well-being of the nation.
Medical advisors, Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci, standing shoulder to shoulder (+6’) with President Trump, are not financiers or political appointees; they are experts in their field and deal in real science. The tools they use are epidemiological mathematical models built on real data over decades of observation and calibration.
Models are imperfect but they lay out and quantify assumptions for all to evaluate. They move impacts from 100 km away to 1 meter away of the leader’s video screens, just like the immediacy of viewing overflowing morgues. A good model forms the basis for communication, learning and coherent decision making.
Models capture the real time world of pandemic decision making with policy implemented quickly and with results becoming evident within weeks. Unlike the more severe and complex problems of climate change and environmental decline, which unfold over decades, Covid-19 causes and effects occur with near video game rapidity.
Donald Trump, calling on his scientific experts, looked more presidential than he ever has and while the public was embracing the new look, what they were really seeing was the transparent functioning of good, albeit necessarily imperfect, government.
Clearly the public is very comfortable with experts sharing the spotlight with political leaders but in a reversion to the old pattern on March 31, President Trump loosened vehicle fuel economy standards citing “market realities”. No scientists were on hand and terms like “following the data” didn’t make it into the announcement which saw the President go from saving lives to making commercial market at the expense of long term well-being.
In the absence of any Birx/Fauci level expertise, Trump’s broad overview of the nation collapsed back to the narrow interests of one small sector of the commercial economy in the best traditions of the swamp.
How much more effectively would we be tackling our existential crises of climate change and resource depletion/environmental decline if the President was guided by climate and biophysical scientists guided by the best models measuring our physical world in real units rather than financial metrics?
But make no mistake, over the past 8 weeks the world view of many nations has changed. Resiliency and critical sector self-sufficiency are sure to become priorities going forward. Pre-Covis-19 politicians devoted most of their efforts into making sure the wheels weren’t going to fall off the economy tomorrow. Well, now the wheels have indeed just fallen off and we are looking at an economic reset, not “merely” an economic recovery.
Vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic will reinforce the drive to bring manufacturing and science back within national borders. What would have happened to China’s ability/willingness to export masks and other medical supplies if 100 million of its people had required medical care for Covid-19 instead of fewer than 100,000? A low price doesn’t matter if you can’t get what you desperately need.
Clearly the post pandemic era will be a new normal and possibly a better one because we are quickly learning what is really most important to us. Maybe a stable, resilient, healthy society more attuned to the physical reality of a fragile planet now looks better to most people than a new kitchen or truck every 5 years. Perhaps then, the fixation on commercial market size will fade as public well-being re-asserts itself as the core national metric.
Having demonstrated their willingness to address a clear threat to national health, now world governments must apply their biophysical templates of pandemic policy-making in the fight against the worst impacts of climate change and environmental decline. Covid-19 is a wakeup call and a warmup for larger challenges which require that governments stay locked on real policy and clear national goals.
John Erik Meyer is a small, medium tech business owner with a degree in economics. He has had a number of articles published in Canada’s major newspapers dealing with a range of topics from population, immigration and the environment to the failings of GDP based metrics for social policy formation. He has also presented a paper on the need for Energy Based Currency at a conference of that name in Split, Croatia. Mr. Meyer is currently President of the NGO “Canadians for a Sustainable Society”. He has built solar electric and hot air systems as well as electric bikes and has just built a house which will be (eventually) energy positive. His primary interests are the changes necessary to achieve a sustainable society, population cycles and the reasons for failed human social structures throughout history.
His book “The Renewable Energy Transition, Realities for Canada and the World” has been recently published by Springer Nature.
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