The world is up in arms. In the wake of the widespread panic, uncertainty, and fear, no current discourse is perhaps so polarising in epidemiological terms as the topic of how different states and individuals have managed the pandemic. Everybody seems to have an opinion on what went wrong in the last 6 months. And ultimately, everybody is looking for something – or someone – to blame.
The Declaration of Independence states ‘Government has one overarching purpose; that of protecting the inherent human rights of life, liberty and property’. To fail in protecting the former is to fail as a government in the ultimate sense. Furthermore, for countries so proud of their world-leading healthcare systems, it should be a source of great embarrassment when these cripple under the weight of the influx of cases. Hence, since the beginning of the outbreak, we have all born witness to distraction tactics used to distribute this culpability. Namely, scapegoating.
I’m not here to point the finger as to who acted wrong and who acted right. It is about the dangers of the government arm of the state scapegoating individuals in order to hide from responsibility. Doing so obstructs our path to systemic change; if we hold a few individuals to account, we can fool ourselves that the solution is to simply remove them. This is almost never the case. We must look further than the behaviour of a few public individuals and examine the system that allowed them influence in the first place.
The US recently terminated their relationship with the World Health Organisation , on account of its “mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic”. The drastic decision is a perfect example of the refusal of accountability and diversion of blame for managing the system. But it is certainly not the first we have seen.
In The Beginning
When the first cases of COVID-19 were reported from China, the world was not aware of truly the scale of change that would follow. There was a vague acknowledgement that it could be a threat, but this was widely deflated by the idea that this was a ‘foreign’ disease. Chinese infrastructure and culture were criticised – Wuhan’s ‘wet markets’ were cited as a cause for the pandemic – and were a convenient way for governments around the world to acquit themselves of accountability. The outbreak began in China, but it should have instantly become a global responsibility. That until recently American officials were still referring to COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’ illustrates a governmental failure to take this responsibility onboard.
The UK’s Response
When governments were finally forced to respond, their actions became the objects of scrutiny instead. Measures imposed have been divisive, making them especially susceptible to criticism. We all repeated and stuck to the mantra ‘we’re all in this together’ – all, that is, except the few individuals we singled out to blame.
Last month an article written by computer scientists David Rich and Konstantin Boudnik claimed that the program used by Neil Ferguson and his team to model the growth and consequences of the pandemic in the UK was weak and incredibly unreliable. There was a general consensus amongst computer scientists that this was the case, the authors even going so far as to call the model ‘the most devastating software mistake of all time’.
However, in its stern criticism of the model, the article fails to recall that, imminent to lockdown, intensive care units were threatening to soon be at maximum capacity. Drastic measures were required urgently. I scanned the article repeatedly to find any reference to this immense pressure facing ICU’s; instead, the dire situation of late March seemed to have been not only just brushed under the carpet, but completely forgotten.
Science may have messed up, but it is undeniable that fast action was required at the time. That critics should disregard such crucial facts suggests less a measured discourse from which they wish to produce a new solution, and more a frantic scrabble to simply find a new scapegoat.
It is irresponsible to propose a solution based off such unreliable evidence, but it is equally irresponsible to allow such a solution to have influence. Pinpointing blame to a few isolated individuals will only block us from holding the system to account and calling for reform. Yes, we must hold the scientists accountable, but also go further and examine the link between science and government.
Health minister Matt Hancock is barely heard to utter a sentence not pre-empted by his catchphrase “following the experts’ advice”. Hence in gaining influence, these experts have also become a crutch and a scapegoat for the government when responding to criticism. Placing so much blame on the scientists could lead to a huge loss of faith in science, exacerbating this trend of science rejection we see already in attitudes such as vaccine hesitancy and climate change denial.
Nobody is infallible. Mistakes are made all the time, and where one individual fails, it is certain that many others would also have in their place. Therefore, it is not so much eradication of the individual as it is re-evaluation of the system which will facilitate success next time.
Essentially, what matters is that these mistakes do not filter through to the frontline. There should be systems of support and networks of collaboration to ensure this. We must consider beyond the failure of the individual and interrogate the failure to implement these.
Until we realise this, we cannot have an objective grasp of the state of the pandemic. Our readiness to identify flawed responses is a promising reflection of our critical thinking abilities, but we need to move beyond simply pointing the finger. We need to actually learn from failure and take on board the changes we should make.
We cannot underestimate the dangers in how we dish out blame. One day the world will no longer be on hold; COVID-19 will no longer be the first story on the evening news. But we will still carry the bitterness we feel towards individuals now, and the implications of this are immense: it will sway political views and define our trust and relationship with science and government.
To recover fully and instigate change, we must think carefully about where we direct our blame and dig deeper to find the roots of failure. Pinpointing blame to a few isolated individuals will only block us from holding the system to account and calling for reform, and there is no better example of this than the petty fracture between the US and WHO: a great blow to the hopes of building a better system through collaboration and learning from mistakes. Progression isn’t a blame-game, and neither is survival. We must remember that the process of evolution is continuous trial and error.
Words by Isabella Ward