By Dr David Zaruk, environmental-health risk analyst and professor based in Brussels. He has worked in risk management and science communications for industry, public institutions and the academe since the 1990s. He writes a blog under the name The Risk-Monger
A risk-averse culture and a helpless population that expects others to solve every problem has made the developed world uniquely unsuited to evaluating and dealing with the dangers of the new coronavirus.
Like all viruses, the Covid-19 coronavirus preys on the vulnerable and is allowed to destroy the weak. It is rapidly spreading across Europe and America due to the weaknesses in our regulatory risk management systems which have created a culture totally unprepared to act to contain such a threat.
If Western democracies had been capable of implementing basic risk reduction measures to keep exposures down during the first 10 weeks of 2020, there would not have been the need to lock down countries, strangle the global economy, and lead to the unprecedented decline in physical and mental well-being of its populations. Why couldn’t they?
Risk management, as a field of academic study, was born out of the environmental-health risk crises of the 1990s. BSE, GMOs, MMR, EDCs and EMF were some of the acronyms that raised fear as risk-managers learnt how the precautionary principle could be applied to reassure citizens with declarations of certainty and safety. In the two decades that followed, particularly in Western Europe, risk managers adopted the protective, precautionary role, cultivating a risk-averse population dependent on regulators to guarantee a risk-free world.
Western societies have become docile, having others protect them while feeling entitled to benefits without risks. They no longer had to manage their own risks as any hazards were regulated out via their policy system. There was no need for warnings like ‘Handle with care’ or ‘Keep out of reach of children’ as everything was guaranteed to be safe and if regulations failed to protect the public, the US tort lawyers would send perpetrators into bankruptcy (‘Warning: Contents may be hot!’).
This removal of a basic human survival instinct has led to a passive, receptive, well-fed population of ‘docilians’ who demand safety and certainty without the capacity to manage their own risks. Coupled with decades of affluence and entitlement, individuals formed into social media tribes to reaffirm their risk-averse demands on their authorities. Precaution (better safe than sorry) was an easy policy tool for lazy regulators since they did not have to be right in their decisions, just safe.
Gurus and activists reinforced this docilian desire for a zero-risk world and pushed this precautionary tool to include banning products with minimal or non-existent risks: trace levels of pesticides in breakfast cereals, vaccines, plastic linings in tin cans, acrylamide on chips… These docile individuals, used to being protected, were not concerned about the consequences on global health, food security, or economic well-being – the ‘facts’ they wanted to hear were amply fed to them.
Research and innovation became bureaucratically encumbered as docilians refused to accept any risk or uncertainty. Where regulators tried to impose a scientific rationality on the process, this tribe of activist cults demanded to have the risk assessors and authorities replaced with citizen panels (people like them) who would then impose precaution and stop any threats.
The docilians were succeeding in dismantling the risk management process in Europe and America until something happened in Wuhan.
Covid-19: The stark reality of risk
Within three months in 2020, the entire docilian risk-averse culture was infected with a deadly virus which its risk management tools were too weak to combat. The risk managers were telling their populations what they wanted to hear: that this threat was in China and there was zero risk. But as the risk crept closer, the best they could do is remind people to wash their hands… with soap.
The only risk management tool docilians tolerated was the precautionary principle: when there is uncertainty (when you cannot prove a situation is safe), then take precaution (stop any actions, processes, substances causing the uncertainty). In a normal situation, precaution is applied when all other means to manage a risk (and enjoy a benefit) have failed. Ten weeks after the discovery of a novel coronavirus, the only measure most Western authorities took, once the outbreak was spreading out of control on their shores, was to lock down entire populations: take total precaution (stop all actions) to try to slow the virus transmission.
Why were the authorities incapable of applying robust risk reduction measures in the 10 weeks prior to the collapse of the Western economy and civil liberties? They could have developed sufficient testing capacity, built hospitals, established viral firewalls around the most vulnerable, educated populations on how to strengthen immunity levels and improve resistance or removed elements that could amplify transmission in public spaces. Most 10-year-olds would know how to react when a storm is coming, but docilians had grown accustomed to benefits without responsibilities, entitled to a world without risk and the expectation that others would take care of them.
As Western populations have seen the loss of most social and economic benefits in a matter of weeks, facing large-scale loss of life and the incapacity to protect its most vulnerable, the docilians have woken up. This is the moment to reconsider our misguided risk management procedures.
Rewriting risk management
Precaution is a failed policy tool that has weakened humanity’s capacity to prosper and protect itself. In affluent times, the lost benefits from precautionary actions were only felt by the weakest, but those times are gone. Risk managers need to protect the most vulnerable, but in the docilian nightmare, this got turned on its head. Precaution banned crop protection tools and seed technologies so the wealthy could eat organic food; it handcuffed medical innovations so the healthy would thrive with supplements; it banned forms of energy so only the rich could afford to keep the lights on. But Covid-19 did not spare the affluent and people were reminded that humanity’s existence is, by nature, fragile.
Science since the time of Francis Bacon was aware of this fragility and the need to protect the weak from the ravages of nature. The docilian perversion (attacking science to defend nature) ultimately made everyone weak. Restoring the role of science at the heart of risk management would be the first step.
Precaution is not even a risk management tool (it simply tries to manage away uncertainty). Uncertainty (hazard) is inescapable and there is no such thing as zero risk. What risk management does is try to reduce exposure to hazards to as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA). Our risk management debates must be on what is reasonable in light of the benefits and not the insatiable emotional concepts of ‘safe’ and ‘certain’.
In this docilian awakening, we have the opportunity to restore risk management within the framework of what is scientific, rational and achievable. Perhaps the next time nature rears its ugly head, we will have the tools to protect our most vulnerable.