It is not news to say that Melbourne has fared poorly during the pandemic. The sudden onset of a second wave, dwarfing the first in severity and plunging us suddenly from a relaxed level 2 lockdown all the way to a level 4, complete with curfew, all took a toll.
In part this second wave was a simple matter of logistics, born of the simple impossibility of eliminating a pandemic without a vaccine. But what has truly surprised, and indeed shaken many, has been the extraordinary examples of human irrationality that contributed to this second outbreak.
Many will be familiar with the unconfirmed rumour that a security guard tasked with supervising quarantined hotel guests not only allowed them to leave the facility, but had sex with them before returning to his community. Many more will be aware of the anti-lockdown protests that took place at the Victorian Shrine of Remembrance, the arrests that followed, and particularly the pregnant organiser of the facebook event being arrested for Incitement.
And while we have largely been spared the politicisation of the virus that has flourished in the USA, we have still had our share, with many conservative commentators calling for the state to be re-opened early for the sake of mental health, small businesses or personal liberty – all despite the very obvious health consequences this would have for millions of people and the almost immediate return to lockdown this would force.
In summary, Victoria’s challenges with Covid-19 have in large part not been a failure of its technical response, but rather a failure of the people within that response; an extremely rational, well informed and effective approach sabotaged entirely by human irrationality.
In other words, a perfect model for why ethics fail.
At their core, ethics are decision-making methodologies, designed to help us make the best possible decisions with the information available to us. While the methods of doing so are diverse, they all seek to provide models for clear, calm and reasonable thinking. But faced with a group of people - with all the benefits of living in a developed nation in 2020 - defying a quarantine order in the middle of a pandemic… well it is hard to argue that these methods are working.
It is easy to dismiss such irrational behaviour as simply that: irrational, and therefore a matter for psychology rather than ethics. How can we expect our decision-making models to function when so many stakeholders show not only a disregard for reason, but an outright enthusiasm for delusion?
But this belies the fact that such irrationality is not an aberration, but rather an integral factor in human thinking. As of 2020, there are approximately 188 cognitive biases known to science that interfere with our capacity to make fully rational judgements. These biases are integral to the human being, theorised to have been essential for our survival as a species, but ill-designed for modern sophisticated society. These biases can be managed for, but their persistence means that expecting people to be calm and sensible during a crisis, much less fully rational at all times, is doomed to failure.
In large part, ethics are created because of this reality of human irrationality, seeking to provide better models of thinking that help us navigate common cognitive pitfalls. Insofar as those ethical models cannot or do not account for the simple practical reality of that irrationality, they become irrational themselves.
Melbourne’s lockdown experience has made one thing abundantly clear: both ethical assessments and management plans that do not account for human irrationality will find themselves confounded. This in no way invalidates the value of plans that have been developed through rational consideration of the evidence available, but the ‘human factor’ cannot be an optional extra.
Integrating these factors will require a multi-staged approach to account for the diversity of emotional reactions at play:
- Have hope!
To witness how many have reacted to this crisis you would think we have never experienced a pandemic before. By contrast, the human species is very smart, having conquered many big problems before, learning fast, excelling at adapting to new environments, and having more scientific knowledge than ever before. We beat/survived the Black Death, Spanish Flue, Ebola, HIV, and many more diseases over many thousands of years. The precedent is clear: success is not only possible, but well within our grasp.
- A strategic perspective
Success against Covid-19 will require that we adapt faster than the virus, using our collective intelligence and treating this as a multiyear global challenge where we all have a common enemy. We will win and lose many battles and we must learn from each one, share the learning and not look to blame when things go wrong. Mistakes will be made, recovered from, and learned from; reviews of countries managing the best show that compliant behaviour, efficient bureaucracy and using data management technology are key. But adopting and promoting a strategic vision for the long-term, permanent eradication of the virus, day-to-day sufferings can be seen as contributions rather than losses.
- A global mindset
The global nature of this crisis means that a purely domestic approach will never be enough: we need to do more than just help Australians. Richer countries will need to help others, otherwise the virus will linger, seep into our boarders or worse, mutate into an even bigger problem. By fostering a global perspective, efforts to overcome it can be better coordinated – better still, it will strengthen the mechanisms required for tackling other global challenges such as climate change.
- Australia needs to toughen up
While the psychological impact of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown must not be ignored or minimised, Australia’s experience to date illustrates a nation that has not experienced true hardship for a very long time. There are over 100 countries in a worse state than Australia in terms of infection and death rate. We have thus far been sensible and wealthy enough to give priority to health over the economy. In past wars people deliberately sacrificed themselves and others in order to test the enemy for the greater good. We are nowhere near this level of pain. The economic cost to Australians will be higher than anything in recent history, but past generations have experienced far worse – it is time that we learned how to manage the experience of hardship, and sought to recapture the resilience we celebrate in prior generations. Faced with impending challenges like climate change, such a capacity will stand us in good stead in decades to come.
- Rebuilding community
One of the great cruelties of this pandemic is that it defies our natural reaction to a crisis; to come together and look after your community. But after months of isolation from friends and family, we are now posed with an opportunity to use this mounting desire to rebuild the concept of local communities, and thereby strengthen our capacity to endure future challenges – challenges which will sadly abound.
The economic ramification of the pandemic will linger for decades as confidence recovers, trade is re-established, and stimulus spending is recouped. Existing problems such as job insecurity and economic inequality have been greatly exacerbated. Weathering such long-term issues is best done together, and the rush to reunify we will see once lockdown ends offers us a rare opportunity to develop those communities, just as we did after the second world war.
Naturally the field of ethics will have a large role to play in achieving these sorts of changes, both through good governance models, decision-making guidance, and the means to hold those who lead us to account. But our field’s capacity to do this in an effective way will depend heavily on not only accepting that human irrationality will affect the models we provide but will be integral to their success or failure.
Ethilogical Consulting | www.ethilogical.com