As the Covid crisis begins, slowly and uncertainly, to unwind, it may be worth drawing lessons from it. Such an exercise might tell us how well our systems are prepared for future unexpected events.
It is in the nature of government, that big decisions often have to be taken quickly, with incomplete information. Comment from the media should take that into account.
A lot has to be taken on trust.
Even science based decisions leave a big margin for human judgement. The political process has to strike a balance, and be willing to change decisions when the evidence changes. But nothing will work unless there is active buy in by the general public.
So, for example, the more a country’s disaster preparation plans have been publicly rehearsed and road tested, the more likely they are to work.
Ireland has some special vulnerabilities. It has benefitted disproportionately from globalisation, and from speedier travel and communications across the globe.
Being on an island is no longer the disadvantage it used to be. But nor does it provide all the protection it used to.
In one year, we have suffered the largest global epidemic in a century, and its biggest ever cyber attack on an Irish state institution.
These will not be one off events.
There are many times more viruses on earth, than there are stars in the universe, and they are mutating constantly.
Cyber attacks may be crimes. But they are also a new form of undeclared inter state warfare. By choice, Ireland has no military allies, and no counter offensive cyber capacity, that might deter such attacks.
Other threats are more predictable than pandemics and cyber attacks.
The carbon price Ireland will have to pay will rise inexorably.
We have set ambitious climate change targets, but achieving them will mean setting aside money, that might otherwise be used for tax cuts or extra day to day spending, to replace climate damaging infrastructure and energy sources with climate neutral ones.
Increased use of renewable energy will place a strain on limited global supplies of lithium and cobalt. Prices of scarce products will rise. So austerity in the use of energy may become obligatory. That will not necessarily be popular, unless the need for it is explained over and over again.
Our government can borrow cheaply now.
But when these loans have to be rolled over, interest rates may have risen. If the interest rate then exceeds the growth rate of our economy, we will be back in the mire of 2010.
Ireland’s liabilities for pensions and health care will rise steadily anyway, as the population ages, and the working tax base shrinks. I read one economist who calculated that the existing Irish national debt would triple, if predictable pension liabilities were included in the calculation.
All these threats – pandemics, cyber attacks, climate and debt – are unrelated, but more than one of them could easily become acute at the same time, creating a perfect storm.
What can we learn about preparedness for multiple crises from Covid experience?
Plans on paper are not enough. The democracies which had the best pandemic plans on paper, the US and the UK, did poorly.
Their plans did not survive contact with the enemy.
The democracies who felt threatened for other reasons….Taiwan, South Korea and Israel…. did best. Their plans were not just on paper, they had road tested them in military fashion.
Only states have the necessary coercive powers to make a fully effective crisis response to most crises.
But states must work together. Article 196 of the Lisbon Treaty gives the EU power to “support and complement” member states action on “natural and manmade disasters”. These powers have not been tested. They should be. On cyber attacks, the EU should work closely with NATO, which has the specialist expertise.
The Covid crisis has led to an increased understanding of the vital role of government, at both EU and national level.
It has also reminded us that government works in silos, some of which are not good at talking to one another.
Crisis management plans must not be filed away, they must be rehearsed, and talked through, over and over again.