It’s Time to Rethink Resilience
The state’s job is to manage the risks that the rest of us cannot bear. Protecting us from crime and external aggression are the core ones — but as we are realizing now, public health is another.
One effect of the current pandemic has been to consign anti-vaccine cranks, homeopaths, and state-hating libertarians to the sidelines. There is nothing like an emergency to remind people of the importance of collective security. But a deeper effect is to make us rethink what we mean by that security and who should provide it.
The first instinct in times of crisis is to retreat to what we know: national governments and personal connections. But these are insufficient. Big threats require collective action. After an initial descent into national responses, we see the European Union and NATO getting their act together. Big questions surround other multilateral bodies, notably the World Health Organisation. The Economist reported last month that Taiwan warned the WHO about the virus outbreak in late December. But the UN’s health watchdog is under the thumb of the communist regime in Beijing, which insists that it treat the other Chinese state as a pariah. Scandalously, the warnings went unheeded.
So one big result of the crisis will be to put a bigger premium on competence. Political rhetoric can fire up our spirits. But when it comes to our safety, we prefer our decision-makers to be effective. I would not want to be making the case for a hard Brexit in Britain in the coming months. Nor would I want to campaign on “America First.” The pandemic has underlined that we live in an interconnected world. Pathogens do not care about borders and they do not listen to politicians.
But the broader effect will be to make us think about how we price risk. In recent decades, efficiency and convenience have trumped every other consideration. From that point of view, just-in-time supply chains and the gig economy look sensible. Spare capacity should be there only if the price mechanism signals that it is necessary.
That works fine when the weather is sunny. Why waste money on a roof when it doesn’t rain? But — as we are now discovering — storms do come, and with terrifying ferocity. Cheese-paring critics used to say that in an era of robot warfare the British army was way too big. Why pay soldiers to be truck drivers, construction engineers, and warehousemen? It’s a waste of money. Now the army has built one of the biggest hospitals in Britain in a matter of days. Army logistics teams are delivering oxygen and patching other holes in our health service. Nobody is complaining.
What people are complaining about is the lack of masks, goggles, and testing equipment. Tiny investments a few months ago would make a big difference now. Every country is going to need to rethink resilience, in terms of physical stockpiles, institutional cohesion, and training for emergencies.
Some of these priorities may come at the expense of the defense budget. Big-ticket weapons systems in particular will be vulnerable when the crisis abates. But the shift in public perceptions will broadly be welcome. The fragility of our economic, information, social, and technological systems is a tempting target for adversaries. The same changes that will prepare us better for the next pandemic will also help us deal better with what is modishly called “hybrid warfare” — the toxic cocktail of subversion, corruption, and propaganda—used by adversaries such as Russia and China.
We should treat the pandemic as a huge whole-of-society, real-life readiness exercise. Yes, we are making mistakes. But we will learn from them.
April 6, 2020