By Kevin Roche
This post was begun several weeks ago, but halted to see if perhaps I was wrong about the course of the epidemic. It doesn’t appear that I have been. We will have to ask how we got ourselves into this mess and how we ensure that it never occurs again. When I placed ads saying “Stop the Economic Suicide”, it was because that was exactly what we were doing, and despite short term optimism after the latest job report, especially for low and middle-income people the road back will be long and difficult. Most of them may never return to the financial situation they had before the lockdowns. We will be cleaning up the damage for years, perhaps a decade. And, let’s be really clear, this was completely unnecessary. Completely.
So what are the key steps to prevent recurrence the next time there appears to be an epidemic?
1. Don’t take action on early data. Don’t take action on data from other countries.
2. Don’t make assumptions based on past history. Consider all the ways this infectious agent could be different from past ones.
3. Don’t trust forecasting models at all–see 1 and 2. They are worthless until there is a large body of experience and data. Forecasting models are rarely suitable for decision-making.
4. Scientific experts of all types have a narrow perspective and their opinions should be taken with that in mind. Political leaders must consider all perspectives, must explicitly balance the harms and benefits of, and any proposed alternatives to, any proposed law or rule, and act for the greatest good.
5. No executive branch member at any level of government can exercise emergency power in an apparent epidemic. There is always time for the more inclusive legislative process, especially with today’s technology. It is undemocratic for the executive branch to unilaterally make rules that govern people’s lives. If it is apparent that an epidemic is underway in another country or in one part of the United States, the President may issue an order not to exceed 10 days banning or limiting travel to and/or from such area and the US Congress may extend such ban.
6. No legislative body at any level of government may issue any law or rule in regard to an epidemic that in any significant manner limits the public’s freedom unless it is passed by a vote with at least three-quarters of the legislative body’s members in support of the law or rule. Any such law or rule cannot extend for more than a 30 day period unless renewed by a similar vote. Any such law or rule must be ended as soon as the circumstances which led to its enactment no longer exist and must be narrowly tailored to meet its objective in the least burdensome manner.
7. No legislative body at any level of government may issue any law or rule shutting down or limiting the activity of any school, business, government or other organization of any type unless it is passed by a vote with at least three-quarters of the legislative body’s members in support of the law or rule. Any such law or rule cannot extend for more than a 30 day period unless renewed by a similar vote. Any such law or rule must be ended as soon as the circumstances which led to its enactment no longer exist and must be narrowly tailored to meet its objective in the least burdensome manner. Any business whose value is significantly diminished by any such law or rule shall be compensated by the government which enacted such law or rule for such diminution.
8. Governments at all levels must have and must update at least twice a year an epidemic response plan. Such plan shall include the stockpiling of equipment which might be necessary, with regular updatings of such stockpiles, and shall include the maintenance of supplies and equipment necessary for testing. Such plans shall be available to the public and shall be audited once a year by a qualified external firm for adequacy.
9. The federal government should enhance its monitoring of pathogens and potential pathogens, especially those existing in other countries.
10. The federal government shall make every effort to cause every nation to enter into and abide by a comprehensive bioweapons treaty that bans any effort to create or modify a pathogen and has enforceable provisions for inspections with no notice of labs or other locations where such research may be occurring.
11. All social media postings of any type that in any manner purport to relate to an epidemic shall have a warning, placed at the start or heading of the post and at the end and in type at least twice as large as that used for posting that states: THE INFORMATION IN THIS POST CANNOT BE TRUSTED AND IS LIKELY NOT ACCURATE. DO NOT BELIEVE OR ACT ON THIS INFORMATION. Any audio material must carry the same warning, at the start and end of the audio and repeated during the audio at least every minute. Any visual material must carry the same warning, running continually in a large banner form at the top and bottom of the visual material, static pictures or videos. The only exception is information directly posted by a qualified government agency and any information whose accuracy is in any manner uncertain shall contain such warning even when posted by such agency and it shall note the areas of uncertainty.
12. All news media of any type must use the same warnings as listed in number 11 unless they are publishing, verbatim and complete, information coming from a qualified government agency, subject to the same limitations listed in number 11. A qualified government agency may publish data or research results or summaries, so long as it includes appropriate caveats.
I am sure there are more steps that could be taken. You can see that the thrust here is to prevent unilateral action by executive branch members, to avoid the panicking of the public, and more importantly, politicians, by the publication of information which is almost always inaccurate in some manner and which is usually published in the most sensational manner, and to encourage thoughtful, patient action on trustworthy data.
All these steps need to be enshrined in a national law which applies to every government.