The COVID-19 outbreak is not the first nor last series of recent real or potential catastrophes – be they natural disasters, terrorist attacks or pandemics – that have taken by surprise governments, globalised firms and the citizenry.Footnote 1
Yet, due to its near-unprecedented impact on the highly interconnected but vulnerable systems that define the modern world, this pandemic has been testing our ability to govern risk more than any other crisis before. The last time the world responded to a global emerging disease epidemic of the scale of the current novel coronavirus without having access to vaccines was the 1918–1919 H1N1 influenza pandemic.Footnote 2 Ironically, the measures mobilised today to counter COVID-19 – the so-called “non-pharmaceutical interventions”Footnote 3 – are essentially the same as those deployed a century ago, and that despite significant social, technological as well as governance differences between 1918 and today.Footnote 4
No other emergency led to the paralysis of the world economyFootnote 5 by brutally unveiling the gap between global economic interdependence and nation-state governance. No other response to a disaster led to the home confinement of more than half of the world’s population. No other risk management response raised so many novel legal,Footnote 6 ethical,Footnote 7 moralFootnote 8 and political issues. No other pandemic has been covered continually and in real time by a 24-hour news cycle, often reporting conflicting information simultaneously, and further amplified by social media users.Footnote 9 No other crisis has suddenly reshaped our individual and collective idea of risk. Ultimately, no other occurrence carries the potential to disrupt our economic, legal, democratic, social and cultural systems as well as the relationships among them to the same extent.
All of the above makes COVID-19 qualitatively different from any of the six outbreaks previously identified by the World Health Organization as pandemics (“Public Health Emergency of International Concern”, hereinafter PHEIC): influenza, polio, Ebola,Footnote 10 Zika, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)Footnote 11 and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)Footnote 12.
COVID-19 represents not only one of the greatest natural and economic disasters in human history, but also a rich case study of governments’ emergency responses. As such, it is a test bed for virtually all disciplines – be they natural sciences, social sciences or humanities.Footnote 13 This is all the more true for risk research and regulatory theories in a world increasingly shaped by transboundary, uncertain manufactured and natural risks. Ultimately, as Ulrich Beck observed, “risks cannot be understood outside their materialization in particular mediation, be they scientific, political, economic or popular”.Footnote 14
How has a mature, self-aware “world risk society”Footnote 15 been caught by surprise by an essentially foreseeable event like a novel coronavirus (nCoV)?Footnote 16 If the virus spreads transnationally, why then have nation-states favoured national solutions instead of exploring common multilateral solutions? Why did countries – that were initially unwilling to cooperate and adopted different, sometimes competing, approaches to the outbreakFootnote 17 – eventually converge on a common yet uncoordinated risk suppression policy translating into generalised, indiscriminate “social distancing”? What are the actual social, economic and distributive costs entailed by such an uncoordinated, but essentially similar approach? What other major, sometimes excruciating “risk versus risk trade-offs”Footnote 18 are involved in such a common approach (e.g. home confinement versus higher domestic violence; school closure versus higher risk of exposure of grandparents)? Why has the public not been informed about the excruciating trade-offs faced by decision-makers, nor about the criteria used to reach their conclusions?Footnote 19 What liability might countries have incurred due to negligence or omission in their COVID-19 response?Footnote 20 Why did data not play a greater role in predicting and countering the spread of the disease?Footnote 21 Why were existing digital tools not quickly turned into epidemic-monitoring instruments – and without intruding into people’s lives?Footnote 22 How are we to explain the high degree of public acceptance of unprecedented freedom-restrictive coercive measures, such as lockdowns, which have been essentially imposed on – and remained unexplained to – the public? Why have existing global,Footnote 23 regional and national emergency preparedness and response mechanisms proved – once more – so useless, letting governments remain in the driving seat?Footnote 24 Why have the European Union – one of the major epicentres of the pandemic – and its members proven incapable of coordinating their respective actions while curbing the spread of the virus?Footnote 25 What if – as the spread of the virus continues to unfold and some knowledge gaps are filled – the social and economic cost of distancing will outweigh the health benefits sought? What if “state emergency governance” crystallises within governments and becomes the preferred way of doing business in the post-COVID-19 world?Footnote 26
While it is obviously too early to come to definitive conclusions, the contributions collected – in record time – in this special issue of the European Journal of Risk Regulation attempt to provide some initial responses to some of these hard questions. They do so by unpacking the complex combination of a disease pandemic combined with flawed, or at least unprepared, national, regional and international institutions operating in a geopolitically shattered world.
There are several provisional explanations for the global suboptimal response to an essentially foreseeable outbreakFootnote 27 such as this pandemic. They include a KnightianFootnote 28 unmeasurable uncertaintyFootnote 29 surrounding SARS-CoV-2Footnote 30 and the disease it causes;Footnote 31 limited systematic evaluation of the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions;Footnote 32 inadequate diagnostic testing capacity limiting our understanding of the disease’s reproduction, which in turn affects the choice of the risk responses;Footnote 33 the ensuing difficulty in identifying and gauging major trade-offs behind any risk intervention; the lack of an effective global alarm response capacity in an highly interdependent yet geopolitically volatile world;Footnote 34 widespread unpreparedness of our respective health systems, in particular their inability to cater for a surge in capacityFootnote 35; the inability to mobilise the unprecedented wealth of data collected today to counter the virus due to the absence of a data governance and data-sharing culture as well as public–private infrastructure;Footnote 36 and the lack of evidence-based communicationFootnote 37 to – and engagement with – the public at a time of unprecedented disinformation.Footnote 38
The COVID-19 scenario contains all of the ingredients of a textbook case of risk regulation, in which regulators attempt to stabilise decision-making by mobilising a variety of bodies of knowledge guiding their action.Footnote 39 The ingredients include the effort of turning uncertainties into probabilities through scientific assessment methodologies;Footnote 40 the difficult interplay between science and politics, as well as between democracy and evidence-based public policy, when responding to risk through risk management;Footnote 41 the deficient and typically conflicting guidance of precautionary thinking and cost–benefit analysis;Footnote 42 the need to factor in people’s perceptions of risk and responses to it,Footnote 43 especially when communicating about it;Footnote 44 and, ultimately, the inescapable coexistence of societal risks (ie the health threat posed by the virus) with institutional risks (ie the risk of policy failure in relation to a societal risk).
In other words, despite being a qualitatively different pandemic from those witnessed over the last century, there is little new in COVID-19, at least from a risk regulation perspective. These questions and scenarios are part of any government’s attempt to routinise decisions on how to respond to risk through the help of agencies, expert committees and dedicated emergency rapid response mechanisms. The challenges raised by COVID-19 can therefore be seen as the “bread and butter” of our discipline.
Against this backdrop, one may therefore reasonably expect that risk regulation may come up with responses that not only save lives, but also livelihoods, and do also in emergency situations.
Yet, when measured against this benchmark, the global, dominant response to COVID-19 may appear suboptimal. While the generalised, indiscriminate social distancing policy may have had net benefits when it was initially implementedFootnote 45 – contributing to slowing down the spread of the virus while saving tens of thousands of livesFootnote 46 – it has been showing its limitations over time, as the restrictive measures led to major social and distributive costs.Footnote 47 Moreover, as states of emergency are declared throughout the world in response to the spread of COVID-19, concerns arise as to the use – and potential abuse – of power in a time of crisis.Footnote 48 As COVID-19 was spreading, many prominent nationalist populists – from Duterte to Bolsonaro, Trump to Johnson – started off by dismissing fears. They appealed to gut feeling and “common sense” over science and fact, but ultimately – as the COVID-19 outbreak accelerated – they were forced to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and act.Footnote 49 Yet their attitude inherently weakened the case for those measures, as they were initially dismissed as overreaction. In particular, it slowed down their social acceptance, and even led to the adoption of unscientific interventions such as travel bans.Footnote 50
The resulting global response to COVID-19, based on nation-state-based, uncoordinated and often times politicised solutions, already calls for some self-reflection.
To what extent has risk regulation proved inadequate, incapable and even unfit to govern the challenges raised by COVID-19? Or was this the outcome of decision-makers’ fault insofar as their response failed to follow established conventional risk analysis frameworks and failed to embrace the full potential of data? Or, ultimately, can the magnitude of the emergency surrounding this outbreak justify by itself such a suboptimal outcome?Footnote 51
Be that as it may, this pandemic has been testing the ability of risk regulation, both as a discipline and as a practice of government. Risk regulation is not only expected to provide immediate, cost-effective responses, but also to be able to co-create these responses – through participatory mechanisms – when addressing a legitimate public health threat with an unknown trajectory, and to be able to do so in a situation of emergency.
As this Special Issue clearly suggests, we have been thinking about how to govern risks, including disasters – such pandemic diseasesFootnote 52 – for a long time. Over the last decade, this journal has been providing its own contribution by publishing a variety of timely symposia – such as those dedicated to the volcanic ash eruption in IcelandFootnote 53, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill,Footnote 54 the L’Aquila earthquakeFootnote 55 and now the global risk regulatory response to COVID-19 – and featuring original research articles striving to advance the state of research.Footnote 56
Risk regulation is uniquely well situated to play a prominent role in advancing government’s ability to tame disasters. By mobilising many bodies of knowledge and blending their insights, it can better inform our understanding of risk scenarios and – once those unveil – guide decision-makers when facing inter alia excruciating trade-offs and communicating them to the public.
However, if we have learned from previous experiences that even foreseeable challenges can be inherently hard to prepare for,Footnote 57 COVID-19 is no exception.
Once more, the handling of this pandemic brutally unveiled the gap between the sophistication of risk regulation – its epistemic fluency,Footnote 58 established principles and analytical frameworks – and the improvisation of an inherently undisciplined political process tasked to govern, even in emergencies.
To close this gap, we need to rethink not only how to make risk regulation principles relevant and actionable, but also how to make them stick with decision-makers and bureaucracies both within and across states. Unless decision-makers are made accountable to the public for their reliance of, or departure from, well-established risk regulatory principles and frameworks, risk decision-making will be left to extemporisation and inevitably produce unscientific outcomes.Footnote 59
Failing to do so will let COVID-19 go down in history as yet another major disaster occurrence with no learnings attached. It will not be another tweak to the design of emergency preparedness plans, be they global or regional, or the setting up of another emergency body or mechanism that will fully capitalise on what COVID-19 revealed to us.
As new transboundary disasters – from bioterrorism to climate change – loom on the horizon, neither the world nor our discipline can afford to let another crisis go wasted.