Day 36 – Helpful advice for governments

Long one. It’s been a while. Hope you think it’s worth it.

Our actions and decisions are built on our learned experiences. As adults, we know not to touch the hot kettle because we once did that as a small child, and it hurt. Likewise, the exact same reason that we touched the hot kettle as a small child was because we hadn’t done it before, and so we didn’t know that it hurt.

Everything we do is based on what we know. Usually this is subconscious: I don’t even have to think about not touching the hot kettle any more. Even when it’s extending ourselves to new things which we’ve never done before, our prior knowledge stands us in good stead – we extrapolate our experiences to predict how this new action will progress and we react to that progression in the best way that we can – again, basing our decisions upon what we have done before and how that turned out.

When we haven’t had the experience in question, we look for someone who has. These are our experts. We take what they have learned from the experience and we use it to assist us in making correct and sensible decisions.

OK. Enough of the prologue.

Sadly, the fact is that we – and our experts – have very little experience with this novel coronavirus. With that lack of experience comes a lack of information. With that lack of information comes a lack of knowledge. And with that lack of experience, information and knowledge, we suddenly find that the rug of our ability to make informed decisions has been pulled from beneath us.

We’re very much flying blind.

The experts don’t often find themselves in this situation, because they are, by definition, experts. They know a bit about coronaviruses, but this isn’t behaving exactly the same as other coronaviruses. They know something about pandemics, but the last proper global pandemic was 100 years ago, when things really were very different. And they know quite a bit about sociology, but what they know is that very few societies behave exactly the same way.

What has become abundantly clear is that different countries (and, to a lesser extent, even different individuals within those different countries) are attempting to deal with this problem in numerous different ways. Yes, this is because every country is different, but it’s also because the experts advising those countries don’t have the experience to advise those countries in any one specific way. This unprecedented pandemic has the experts scrambling to give us their best guesses as to the best methods to deal with the situation.

The most sensible experts are the ones who are willing to admit that they don’t know. Sadly, that doesn’t mean that they are off the hook.

Our governments are made up of human beings like you or I. When they require advice on a subject, in order to make an informed, educated decision, they turn to their experts. But in this case, as we’ve mentioned, the experts don’t actually know what to do for the best (or at least they might, but they don’t know it yet).

And so the experts have to try their best to advise the politicians. And the politicians have to make decisions based on that expert advice. When politicians make decisions based on advice, that advice usually comes from people who have experience in economics or geology or whatever. And maybe not everyone agrees with that advice, but it does at least come from prior knowledge (albeit tainted/enhanced by political beliefs).

Here, it’s not that the experts disagree: they just. don’t. know.
They can’t – they, like us, have never been through anything like this before.

It takes a lot to admit that you don’t know something. Especially with an entire country waiting to hear what you are about to advise them to do. And, as far as requiring the public to have confidence in the decisions that you are suggesting are made, it might not be a good idea.

But this insistence from our politicians and experts that their approach is the best way forward, when all around us, we are seeing and hearing of different methods which seem to be working better (or to be fair, worse) isn’t helpful.

Neither are the mixed messages we are getting from different government departments. The one telling us we must maintain social distancing versus the one trying to get our kids back to school next week. The one telling us that we should try to avoid going to the shops versus the one which refuses to allow contactless e-commerce. The expert advice (such that it is) might indeed support each of these departments and approaches, but joined-up government needs to decide on one, stick with it and tell us why. Clarity is hugely important if you want to get your message across and mixed messages don’t just count as zeroes, they are negative marks.

And that’s another important point. We’d likely trust our government more if we were party to the reasoning behind their decisions. Transparency is key. It’s something we’re not (if you’ll excuse the pun) seeing here.

So sure: tell us to exercise only between 6-9am, but tell us why as well. Tell us that we have to stay in our homes between 8pm and 5am, but give us the rationale for that decision. We might not agree with it (and we don’t have to), but at least we can (perhaps) see where you’re coming from.

The seemingly ridiculous rotisserie chicken ban is an excellent case in point.

Without any explanation for your decisions (something which really wouldn’t take a lot of extra work in the greater scheme of things), you create distrust, discomfort and fear in an already vulnerable population. Suspicion runs rife and rumours and supposition fill the space that you’ve left vacant. Some people will oppose whatever you have said out of sheer bloody-mindedness, some will just overlook it out of apathy. Either way, it’s a huge own goal.

The thing is that it really wouldn’t take much for our leaders to do this (unless they really are out there just doing these things for the fun of it, of course). It’s clear that the population need to be spoon-fed as far as the lockdown goes: there’s far too much of the South African mentality that the rules only apply to other people, and not to me.

I guess that Cyril won’t read this. I feel that even if Nkosazana did read it, she’d probably ignore it. I pray that if Stella reads it, she does so at home. And Ebrahim definitely won’t read it, because it’s far too modern and new-fangled.

But if anyone “important” is listening, please understand that I don’t envy your situation. I’m sure that none of us would want to have to walk the balance beam that you find yourself on right now. All I’m saying is that perhaps a little more clarity and transparency might help if you want people to stop rocking the bar and trying to knock you off.