Public policy has a number of biases. One is that certain real or alleged emergencies require (or seem to require) an urgent policy intervention. The result is a consortium of elected politicians, bureaucrat officials, and expert technocrats get on board, and assume a drivers' role in a society which would otherwise develop in a more organic, laisse-faire, way. 'Bottom-up' dynamism – with enabling policymaking – gives way to 'authority knows best' executive mandating.
What rarely happens is any communication of criteria – or a likely date – when the drivers may give way to the people, allowing the reestablishment of the previous (albeit imperfect) democratic norm of people driving their own futures. What should happen is when the intervention has clearly succeeded – or clearly failed – then the executive authorities discontinue their state of intervention.
This century the classic cases are the Anglo-American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, whereby no criteria of success of failure were communicated. As a result, these interventions dragged on indeterminably, ushered in many adverse unintended consequences – eg the rise of Islamic State, and the present Afghanistan famine – and in the end failed in the most ignominious manner.
The worst biases are those which maintain – indeed extend – these indefinite and increasingly untenable interventions; take the Obama extension of the Afghanistan intervention narrative, and the Johnson escalation of the Vietnam War.
Another case type is the 'opening of the books' type of exercise whereby incoming governments claim to have been blindsided by revelations that a country was on the verge of bankruptcy. This happened in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1984 and again after the 1990 election.
Another example was the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. This was particularly interesting in that it brought out the 'Queen's Question', whereby Queen Elizabeth herself asked a gaggle of pre-eminent economists at the London School of Economics why they hadn't seen the crisis coming. With their tails between their legs, the gaggle eventually responded by admitting to a "collective failure of imagination" on the part of the mainstream economics' profession. The Queen's question brought out an admission of collective professional negligence. If only we had more journalists with the perspicacity of our beloved Queen.
Most of the alleged 'black swan' (ie blindsiding) events actually turn out to be 'grey rhinos', more akin to 'elephants in the room' that were unseen by the professional seers because, while easily visible, were nevertheless slightly camouflaged.
An interesting public health example was 'Zika' in early 2016. This issue seemed to come out of nowhere, when a mosquito-borne virus that was actually endemic in some Pacific countries, suddenly hit the headlines because it was linked to a few cases in microencephaly in infants in northern Brazil. Soon enough, the clamour from public health technocrats in the 'global north' was that the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games should be cancelled forthwith. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed; someone pointed out that the mosquito problem was much worse both in the north, and in summer. The Olympic Games were eventually (and successfully) held in the cool of Rio's winter; not a mosquito was sighted. Further, the outbreak of microcephaly had been short-lived; and Dengue – Zika's cousin – has probably been the bigger ongoing problem.
Scientists with narrow-vision – as is the nature of specialist scientific scholarship – can have no idea of the systemic consequences of a majorly interventionist and indefinite public health shutdown.
The 2020 Pandemic
Authority troikas – politicians plus bureaucrats plus technocrats – like to be blindsided by 'black swan' events that they (as insiders) could never have predicted. Such blindsiding gives them an enemy; and an opportunity to strut their stuff by waging war on that enemy. The first principle of political rule is to create a 'blindsided' narrative that displaces an alternative 'negligent' narrative.
In the present Covid19 pandemic, the world's authorities claim to have been blindsided by the Wuhan virus, then again blindsided by the transfer of the centre of the epidemic from China to the European Union (before identifying covid as a narrative-fitting enemy, they had hoped it would somehow go away, as SARS in 2003 seems to have done). Then the troika was blindsided by the Alpha-variant a year ago. Then more vociferously blindsided by 'Delta' (which flared up in India in May having already existed for many months), and extremely blindsided by the less severe 'Omicron' variant. Each case of blindsiding enables the authorities to renew the 'surprise enemy at the gates' narrative, and to deflect attention from the authorities' failure to envisage a way out of the pandemic.
(In should be noted that various pronouncements have been made that 'there is no evidence that Omicron is less severe than Delta'. Those who have studied statistics – or courtroom dramas – will understand that 'no evidence' is journalistic shorthand for 'not enough evidence to conclude for sure'. A jury who believes that it's only 90% certain that a defendant is guilty is required to acquit, leading to a headline that an accused person was exonerated. In the Omicron case, the charge is that Omicron is less severe than Delta, and the jury can – until more information is available – be only 90% sure that Omicron is less severe. In a courtroom context 90% certainty represents 10% doubt; thus 90% certainty is not 'beyond reasonable doubt'.)
In this pandemic – as any other form of military or quasi-military siege – the trick is to emphasise the wickedness and trickiness of the enemy, and not the negligence associated with an unprepared and vulnerable population. So expert mainstream scientists – as part of the troika – must go along with the 'tricky enemy' narrative; and play down the alternative 'unprepared population' narrative. While playing out this mainstream narrative, populations at risk become increasingly vulnerable to an eventual exposure to 'the enemy'.
Fortunately, at least in properly functioning democracies, there will be other scientists around to contest the ruling narrative. Sadly though, often not enough scientists take a 'critic and conscience' approach. This is because scientists' careers and reputations are generally more safely secured through conforming rather than questioning; sadly, this applies to 'independent' academic scientists almost as much as to government-contracted scientists.
However, the covid science – as per the nature of science – was never uncontested. In particular a number of Swedish scientists early on presented a very different narrative to the monopoly 'scientific' narrative we have become used to. Likewise, initially a number of British scientists (who had Boris Johnson's ear) favoured an approach that emphasised the preparedness of the population (and voluntary measures) over the 'pull-up-the-drawbridge' strategy favoured by modellers who knew little about immunity while knowing plenty about contagion. Basically, those British scientists who agreed with the Swedish scientists came to be ignored as an official global narrative developed.
Ignore it if it doesn't fit the narrative. Even if you are a scientist.
We hear almost nothing about Sweden in 2021. And that's telling. Further, we are now hearing much more about smaller European countries that – while affected in 2020 – then barely rated a media mention. We have heard much of late however about Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway; even Finland's present covid outbreak made it to the Al Jazeera news last weekend.
But, tellingly, not Sweden. Nor Japan, an acknowledged enigma that is now virtually covid-free, unlike South Korea which is more highly vaccinated and more highly afflicted.
If scientists ignore Sweden – because it doesn't fit the prevailing narrative – then they are being intellectually dishonest.
Yet our scientists – if not our media – are aware of Sweden. Rod Jackson (RNZ 13 Dec 2021, Epidemiologist weighs in on decision day) acknowledged that "cases were going up again" even in Sweden; meaning that he knows Sweden has been largely free of Covid19 consequences for many months. (And Sweden was an early recipient of the new Omicron covid strain; we should be watching it closely.) Indeed the 'beginning of the end' happened in Sweden in about March this year, whereas in New Zealand (and in Sweden's neighbour, Denmark) as late as last month we were only at the 'end of the beginning' (to use Churchillian phraseology). Since March 2021, Sweden has had significantly less covid, and significantly fewer covid restrictive mandates, than its neighbours.
One important aspect of the preference for being blindsided over having to admit to negligence, is that academic risk-taking becomes asymmetric. A technocrat with an overly-cautious refrain, such as New Zealand's Michael Baker, can seem to be a wise guru for much of the time, and is unlikely to suffer any professional consequence if his pessimistic predictions prove to be unfounded. On the other hand, an epidemiologist (or seismologist) who makes an incorrect optimistic prediction may suffer significant professional reprobation. (Seismologists in Italy who failed to adequately forecast the 2009 L'Aquilla earthquake were convicted and imprisoned before being exonerated; see Why Italian earthquake scientists were exonerated, Science, 10 Feb 2015.)
From Omicron (the 'little-O' variant of covid) to Omega ('big-O')
Melbourne-based epidemiologist Tony Blakely, on One News 17 Dec 2021, said that while "it might be heresy", Omicron might just be the way out of the pandemic. He said much the same again on RNZ this morning (ref. Omicron outbreak gathers pace in New South Wales). In both interviews, he started out by largely following the usual narrative; but, when given the opportunity and when able to present it as alternative scenario, he expressed his optimism about Omicron being an opportunity rather than a nemesis. (And note Dr Blakely's sense that he needed to mention the 'h-word' as a qualifier for a perfectly sensible opinion.)
We as a 'north global' population – ie citizens of western liberal-democracies – have largely swallowed a narrative given to us without context. An important part of the covid context is that coronaviruses have been around for a long time, and that the SARS-Cov2 coronavirus is likely to have a future history much like the past history of the others. Another important part is that, in history, all respiratory viruses that get into the community eventually normalise, with or even without the help of vaccines that may accelerate the normalisation process.
What is needed is versions of the virus (including the trick-versions that form the basis of vaccinology) which are more transmissible and less dangerous. (We note that vaccines – especially the Pfizer vaccine – has been highly transmissible; in less than a year perhaps a quarter of the world's population has 'caught' the vaccine.) A more transmissible virus – or vaccinogen – is able to displace a less transmissible virus from the ecosystem. (Indeed, from the point of view of Neanderthal humans, 'modern' African humans were more transmissible, thereby largely displacing Neanderthals; and fully displacing Neanderthal phenotypes. Refer Our Neanderthal Ancestry, 3 March 2021.)
Whether Omicron is good news or bad news depends on the pathology (ie behaviour) of that virus strain. If it is both less nasty and more transmissible then that must be a good thing. What we need in our official covid narrative is a story about how the Covid19 pandemic ends. And there is really only one story – more transmissible and less malign agents displacing the besieging enemy.
This process may involve several steps. An Omicron displacing a Delta does not need to be nice; it only needs to be less nasty than Delta. Omicron could be an important step in the process. Other steps will be vaccines. Future 'mutants' are likely to be even more transmissible and even less wicked. When the Omega variant of covid eventually arrives, we should already be living normally, and it will circulate much as coronavirus OC43 does today.
If we were properly prepared, with a more optimistic and less-controlling narrative – a narrative that imagines an endpoint and the transition to that endpoint – then we might just be treating Omicron as the 'beginning of the end' instead of the 'end of the beginning' (or instead of simply 'the end' as it may seem to some overly-sensitised souls).
For New Zealand, the question really is when rather than whether Omicron should circulate in New Zealand. The better answer may be sooner rather than later, because it is now summer, because New Zealand's people are at peak immunity from vaccination, and because New Zealand's people risk becoming further naïve to a whole suite of respiratory viruses if we wait until late 2022 and 2023.
We can already see that New South Wales – with Omicron – is experiencing less-adverse pathology than Victoria, with Delta. If Omicron gets into Victoria, the situation in Victoria is unlikely to be worse than it is now, and may indeed become quickly better. We should watch New South Wales with anticipation rather than with fear, focussing on the numbers of people there who get seriously ill with confirmed Omicron.
The coronavirus pandemic is bad enough. The present pandemic of fear may be worse. We need to be able to visualise a way out. Omicron gives us the chance to do just that; even if it turns out that Omicron itself is not the agent that takes us out.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.