Can the pandemic teach politicians to take long-term threats seriously?

The profound flaws in Canada's early pandemic response identified by the auditor general this week all have one thing in common — they're the things societies neglect when they confuse "low-probability" with "impossible."

Humans are lousy at preparing for low-probability, long-term risks — and our leaders are only human

An elderly man sits alone wearing PPE while he receives dialysis at the Humber River Hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, December 9, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The auditor general's conclusion this week that the Public Health Agency of Canada "was not adequately prepared to respond to a pandemic" is disappointing. It's also not entirely surprising — being inadequately prepared for a once-in-a-century pandemic is a failure that obviously was not unique to the Public Health Agency, or to Canada.

"The experience of COVID‑19 has provided a lived experience of a global pandemic, the nature of which Canada has not seen in over 100 years," the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) wrote in its response to the auditor general.

The challenge now isn't just to ensure our institutions are braced for the next pandemic. It's also to think about how governments and societies can prepare for all the other once-in-a-century catastrophes that might happen.

"Reports like [the auditor general's] will be written multiple times in country after country after country," said Dan Gardner, a fellow at the University of Ottawa and author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, in an interview this week.

"This is not unique to Canada. This is our species. This is how we roll."

All the issues identified by the auditor general are worthy of attention. The system for managing data was inadequate. A risk assessment tool did not properly capture the probability of a future threat. And PHAC had "not contemplated or planned for mandatory quarantine on a nationwide scale."

The auditor general's report suggests officials tried to address shortcomings as problems emerged — and it might be hard to quantify exactly how the overall pandemic experience in Canada was affected by any one problem. But the AG is not the first person to say this country was not perfectly ready for COVID-19.

"There were really concerning reports from far away and we started to take measures. But, as we look back, there's [a] lot of things that we probably would've wanted to do sooner in terms of preparing," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the CBC's Rosemary Barton in December.

"I think the next time any leader sees reports of a possible flu-like virus coming out of some corner of the world, make sure we have the right stockpiles of [personal protective equipment] and start ordering more … There was a scramble there that I wouldn't want to repeat."

'No one really cares ... until the disaster happens'

As Trudeau noted, Canada was hardly alone in scrambling for PPE as countries realized they didn't have enough on hand and supply chains were fragile or insufficient. But if governments had properly thought through what might happen in the event of a global pandemic — the likes of which the world has not seen since the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 — they might have seen the problem coming.

"If you speak to anybody who deals with disaster management — which is foreseeing risks, mitigating the risks, dealing with them afterward — they will tell you it is almost a cliche in that field that you are starved for resources and no one really cares about your work until the disaster happens," Gardner said. "At which point you [are] deluged with money — so much money that you don't know how to use it.

"Then gradually, as time passes, you slowly evolve back to the previous position in which nobody cares about your work and you're starved for resources. I call that the complacency-to-panic cycle."

The probability blind spot

The basic problem, Gardner said, can be traced to human psychology. People tend to struggle with probability and long-term thinking. A global pandemic is an improbable event at any given moment in time; it's only over the long term that such threats can be expected to manifest themselves.

"In other words, it's a combination of our two blind spots," Gardner said.

Gardner put it this way in a piece he wrote last year: if you're told that there is a one per cent chance of something bad happening this year, you will discount the risk. But if that one per cent chance is constant from one year to the next, the "highly improbable" becomes "inevitable."

Gardner also points to the "availability heuristic" and the idea that people will judge how common something is by how easily they can recall an example of something similar happening in the past.

People forget things — even the worst things

Anyone who was alive during the terrorist attacks of 9/11, for instance, might consider it more likely that terrorists could hijack an airplane. But there are few people left on the planet with any memory of the Spanish Flu.

And vigilance always fades over time. "If something bad happens to us, we suddenly perk up and pay a lot of attention to that bad thing and we are on the lookout for that bad thing," Gardner said. "If the bad thing doesn't manifest itself for a while, we gradually forget about the bad thing and go on about our day."

Firefighters walk through rubble near the base of the destroyed south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (Peter Morgan/Reuters)

All that human psychology informs political and institutional attention. "There's human psychology that is making judgments about risks. The psychology informs public perception of risks. The public perception of risks informs politics. And the politics determines the resources that are available to prepare for risks," Gardner said.

Government officials are only human. But if we can identify these blind spots, and if we now see the consequences of failing to prepare for possible disasters, our preparations don't have to be limited to the next killer virus.

"I'm not worried about the next pandemic because I'm really pretty confident that our governments are going to be exquisitely sensitive to that threat. And they're going to be that way for years to come," Gardner said.

"The conversation should not be, 'How do we prepare for the next pandemic'? The conversation should be, 'How do we next best prepare for the next low-probability, high-consequence event that we're not thinking about?'"

No political value in preemptive problem-solving

In his new book Value(s), former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney touches on a similar idea. He observes that resilience and preparedness were undervalued before the pandemic — and politicians are rarely rewarded for preemptively solving problems.

The most obvious analogue of another global pandemic is climate change, although that can no longer be considered a "low probability" threat. Dealing with that threat means mitigating the risk — by reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and protecting ourselves against the "once-in-a-century" storms and fires that are already happening.

Another severe solar storm like the one that caused the 1859 Carrington Event could damage communication systems and cripple the global economy. (NASA/Associated Press)

Gardner threw out another suggestion: solar storms and the so-called Carrington Event of 1859, which fried telegraph lines. A similar geomagnetic disturbance now could wreak havoc on the communications technology that runs the modern world.

Preparing for such threats inevitably comes with upfront costs and the aftermath of this pandemic may offer some interesting insights into how much we are willing to do — and for how long. Maintaining a constant and robust supply of PPE and increasing domestic vaccine manufacturing would require resources.

A new definition of national security

The cost of preparation might always be far less than the cost of failing to prepare. But if the next pandemic is years or decades away, how long might it take for future Canadians to cut back or ignore such precautions?

For the sake of sustaining such efforts, Gardner said he wonders whether preparations for the next disaster could be included within a general understanding of national security — something politicians of all stripes are generally willing to fund.

He acknowledged that you could get carried away in trying to imagine all the awful things that could happen. But within reason, thinking about risk and resilience could better prepare governments and societies for whatever might come.

"There are two ways to approach it," Gardner said. "Number one is, let's have a conversation about those low-probability, high-consequence events that we're not talking about — whether there are reasonable, cost-effective ways of mitigating those risks.

"Number two is just generally — how can we make our systems less fragile? How can we build more resilience into the system so that if we are hit with whatever it is that we're hit by, we can respond to it well?"


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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