A policy road map to tackle COVID-19
The interest of each and the interests of all now coincide, not only within nations but for all humanity.
- Policies to address the worldwide crisis brought about by COVID-19 must satisfy three criteria. First, they must aim to minimise the loss of life directly resulting from the disease, while recognising that there remain deep uncertainties about its true nature.
- Second, they must restore the elements of economic and social life as soon as possible, so as to avoid disastrous and lasting consequences, including for other aspects of health, schooling, food security and livelihood. An approach that values all lives must give attention to the costs as well as benefits of the lockdown, conceiving the public health comprehensively.
- Third, they must aim at a glide path out of the crisis, that can reasonably be projected to end it once and for all — not merely to manage it indefinitely through, for instance, periodic lockdowns. There are costs involved in starting and stopping schools and business, but beyond this, human beings need regularity to plan and act sensibly.
An effective health system
- The infections which do not lead to fatalities or lasting illness must be treated as on balance desirable, when determining the right balance of policies. This recognises a central trade-off — avoiding infection versus gaining possible population-level immunity.
- Reducing the flow of persons who get the disease in each moment diminishes the stock of those who have been exposed, which extends the duration of vulnerability of society.
- Due to different circumstances, the appropriate strategies for protecting life may vary across countries even when the end is the same.
- The policies must make a link between restoration of economic output and adequate investment in containing, indeed ending, and the disease. This means that costs of vaccine development, mass testing and other measures attacking the disease must be viewed as enjoying a healthy societal return.
- The very low contributions so far to the international fund to develop a vaccine for the virus shows the scale of mismatch between the losses already incurred worldwide and likely to be incurred in the future, and investments to limit those losses.
- Failure to finance vaccine development is not mere free riding, but borders on suicide, since the prospective gains of individual countries would more than justify paying for the needed investment. Private firms are also being encouraged to contribute, but should agree that any breakthrough must be freely available and benefit all.
- ‘Smart’ design of policies can permit restoration of economic and social life. Such policies should be designed and targeted to allow lower-risk segments of the population to return to daily activities, while protecting higher-risk ones.
- For instance, systematic collection of test results and other data can be used to manage. Financial compensation for lost earnings, and in-kind support to limit social contacts, such as services to deliver essential goods to the home, can be provided to family members and professionals who help the elderly and vulnerable.
- Public infrastructure for those who have no suitable alternatives, such as residential facilities to support self-isolation where needed, can be developed. Some policy choices will be complementary, for instance because schools must reopen in order that parents can work.
- Public actions must enable and encourage desired behaviours, rather than restrict and punish undesired ones. Technology can play an assistive role but is no substitute for public understanding and voluntary choices, fostered by supportive public policies that remove obstacles and enhance benefits of the behaviours being sought.
- An approach that is effective at balancing and achieving the desired goals can and should also be democratic. The aim must be to reduce risks and manage interdependence, rather than to build walls, whether around individuals, localities or countries.
- The right perspective is not one of business versus life nor of life versus life, but of life and life, seeking to reconcile goals through sensible measures. The interest of each and the interests of all now coincide, not only within nations but for all humanity.