In the age of nationalism, Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell says it is the role of the diplomatic community, and of intelligent public policy to provide alternatives
It is a cliché that history looks inevitable in retrospect, but it is the task of policy makers to try to see the inevitable coming and do something about it.
Measured by that test, it seems unlikely that history will be very kind to the generation of policy makers in charge in the West in 2020.
Very few people can truthfully say they saw Covid coming, and even fewer can say they have acted on that foresight.
It should not have been like that. Pandemics caused by new strains of infectious disease are hardly new – they have been around since the beginning of recorded history. And there have been plenty of articles about the risks caused by international travel and transmission – well illustrated by the SARS experience 15 years ago.
But scientific advance is so much part of the fabric of western society that we find it hard to believe that it cannot come to our aid when nature needs taming.
Even after nine months of the Covid-19 pandemic it is still our default instinct to imagine that policy simply needs to ‘flatten the curve’ until a vaccine is developed. The role of science is to provide the US cavalry that rides to the rescue in the last reel of a 1950’s western.
Of course, we all hope that a vaccine will be developed; of course, we all read the reports of the latest versions in clinical trials and hope that a solution can be found.
But intelligent public policy does not assume that it will be – and certainly does not repeatedly state, without strong supporting evidence, that a miracle solution is imminent.
We should allow for the possibility that science is not about to solve the problem of creating reliable immunity against a mutating virus, particularly when we remember that science has not yet done so against other equivalent viruses.
Against that background, future generations will surely find it surprising how slowly policy has responded to the challenge, and how difficult we seem to find it to apply in one country lessons learnt in another.
We are, for example, regularly told that countries in the Indo Pacific have developed a policy response to Covid-19 that is several orders of magnitude more effective than the response we have seen in Western Europe and North America.
But we instinctively default to excuses. Indo Pacific countries learned from the experience of SARS, and their social conditions make the policy response more effective.
But we are too easily persuaded. The excuses are too glib.
Of course, there are differences of culture and tradition, but it is an uncomfortable fact that Indo Pacific democracies have simply reacted more quickly and more effectively. The result has been that their populations have suffered less pronounced health effects and dramatically less economic damage than has been the norm in Europe and America.
Why do we find it so difficult to face these facts and apply the lessons?
Furthermore, it is bad enough that this failure to apply the lessons of successful public policy applies to the impact of a deadly pandemic. Unfortunately, that is not the only example of policy challenges where we find it difficult to develop a common response.
In the health field, the continued failure of the global community to develop a convincing response to growing anti-microbial resistance is another example of a threat to human wellbeing that has been discussed by experts, but which has not yet made a sufficient impact on the way we live.
Antibiotics were never a relevant response to a coronavirus, but the threat posed by their declining effectiveness poses another major threat to the way of life we often take for granted.
And there is a long list of issues where the same phenomenon is apparent – well beyond healthcare.
The most obvious, and the most fundamental, is our failure to address the climate emergency on which life itself depends. You don’t have to agree with every sentiment expressed by Greta Thunberg to recognise the force of her argument. The examples are legion: the impact of carbon emissions on global warming; the effect of plastic discharges into the oceans; the effect of toxic discharges on forests and other living organisms, and many more.
These examples all arise because national policy makers find it too easy to focus on short term issues and interests, and fail to identify the common interest of all inhabitants of Planet Earth. Too often they have defaulted to the easy belief that ‘science will produce an answer.’
It is the policy maker’s equivalent of buying a lottery ticket.
As with Covid-19, science may produce an answer. But should we put all our eggs in that basket; or should we have a Plan B? It is surely a rhetorical question.
That is why we have initiated the World Economic Series of events.
In the age of nationalism, it is the role of the diplomatic community, and of intelligent public policy to provide alternatives.
We cannot afford to put our fingers in our ears and sing loudly in the hope that these threats will pass.
We owe it to ourselves and, more importantly, to future generations to ‘see the inevitable coming and do something about it.”