President Donald Trump’s assertion this week that the US having the world’s most COVID-19 cases should be seen as a “badge of honour” epitomised all the failings of irrational, autocratic decision-making. And in this crisis, decision-making has been a matter of life and death.
Trump, like his fellow autocratic strongmen (and they are invariably men) in Brazil, Russia and China, has inflicted massive unnecessary pain on his people.
They fit a pattern: deny, lie, bully and blame others. Denial stems from the autocrat’s belief that nothing is wrong or could go wrong while they are leader and that the autocrat knows more than anyone else about everything.
Lying, bullying and blaming come after things are manifestly going wrong. Autocrats then say they did everything in the best possible way but uncontrollable outside forces caused the problem. Besides, they falsely assert, we are fixing this problem faster than anyone else. Others have to be bullied into publicly acknowledging the autocrat is correct or faced being purged.
For the autocrat, there is nothing wrong with acting inconsistently while maintaining they were doing the right thing all along. In Trump’s mind, early assertions that nothing was wrong and all was under control are entirely consistent with issuing lockdown and business-closure guidelines and then applauding states that decided to prematurely end them.
The US is a poor COVID-testing performer. It was 39th per capita when earlier this month Trump stood in the Rose Garden with banners congratulating the US as being the No1 tester.
The fact that it is not the No 1 tester is the very reason it is No 4 per capita (if you treat the EU as one polity) and No 1 overall on the COVID death list. It is heading for No 1 per-capita on the death list (unless Brazil beats it) because its curve is not tapering like that of the three above it and because COVID is heading to smaller cities and towns in states where sentiment is against lockdowns and social distancing, whether voluntary or compulsory.
Trump has put the economy and his re-election before the health and lives of people. It may backfire, of course, if illness and death touch too many voters’ families. It is a risk he is taking.
The US (a wealthy federal democracy, like Australia) has 72 times the Australian COVID death rate. Pretty much all of it can be put down to the erratic, irrational decision-making by Trump compared to the by-and-large inclusive, rational decision-making in Australia, exemplified by the “national cabinet” of federal state and territory governments with about even Coalition and Labor representation.
Trump argued that the more testing you do the more cases you find that would not have otherwise been found because they are asymptomatic. If the US had been leading in testing, this argument would have had merit. But it is not. The autocrat’s mindset is to grab at any argument, even if based on a falsehood, to “prove” that they have acted in the best possible way.
Autocrats blur what is best for the country with what is best for their political future and how they see themselves. It is all about them.
China’s death rate is much lower because China’s strongman, President Xi Jinping, once he realised things were going wrong, enforced a radical lockdown unfettered by state or regional governments or political protest via the omnipresent and omnipotent Communist Party. He then set about deflecting blame and bullying others – standard autocratic modus operandi.
The EU’s decision-making has been rational, if initially too slow. Once the EU realised it had a problem, it went into long, hard lockdown, putting people before the economy. As a result, despite an early high death toll, the EU’s daily death rate is falling (now at 2 to 3 per million) whereas the US daily rate is 4.7 per million and still rising.
The UK’s decision-making led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabal of Tory henchmen has been erratic at best. It started with the pursuit of herd immunity and poor or non-existent lock-down rules. It put the economy before people. It has a daily death rate almost double that of the EU, but it is, at least, flattening unlike that of the US.
The standout cases of Australia and New Zealand were the result of highly rational decision-making, putting health and lives of people ahead of the economy and convenience. If Australia’s decision-making had been as bad as that of the erratic Trump, we would not have 100 dead but 7000. If our decision making had been as bad as that of the know-it-all, populist, blustering Boris Johnson, we would now have 13,000 dead, not 100.
That said, Australia’s decision-making has been based upon flattening the curve so we can deal with a rise in cases later on and on the eventual development of a vaccine and/or treatments. That was a rational expectation because the first has been achieved even if the other two may be a long way off or never eventuate.
It will mean that as Australian Governments ease restrictions, individuals, especially those in vulnerable cohorts, will have to make rational, voluntary decisions about social distancing and cutting down on unnecessary contact with others. The importance of rational decision-making will be more important than ever, especially as some individuals in Australia, the US and elsewhere have behaved like Trump – cavalier deniers.
Fortunately, in Australia, we have sensible law-enforcement to deal with that.
Australia was also fortunate in that it drew upon the collective expertise of nine public-health agency heads and their staffs and a range of tough enforceable quarantine laws that had been passed well before this crisis by democratically elected Parliaments.
This brings us to Sweden whose response may turn out to be the most rational of all. Its Public Health Agency (whose advice the Government follows) points out that there was little or no evidence upon which to base any response to this pandemic. Sweden’s quarantine laws are based on voluntary compliance.
Sweden stressed keeping vulnerable people at home as far as possible, social distancing and hand-washing. But it did not close bars or restaurants. It has flattened the curve. To date its overall death rate is lower than most European nations, but higher than its Scandinavian neighbours. Its economy has not been so badly affected and it is coming close to herd immunity in Stockholm. It’s very much a mixed bag.
Whether the Swedish or Australian response turns out to be the correct one will, in the long run, depend upon how quickly a vaccine or a treatment can be found it. The sooner they are found, the more the Australian response will prove correct; the slower they are found, the more the Swedish response with its long-term herd immunity with prove correct.
But given that no-one knows how quickly a vaccine or treatment will emerge, you could argue either way.
The real point is that rational, thought-out, consistent strategies have minimised or will minimise deaths. Knee jerk denials followed by on-again, off-again restrictions by the erratic strongmen have caused massive, unnecessary suffering and death.
The quicker the American, Brazilian, Russian and Chinese people can throw out the strongmen and their parties the better.
[This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 23 May 2020]