(1) There was no recent experience of a serious epidemic in the country, causing leaders to subconsciously underestimate the seriousness of the threat:
There is a chance some politicians in the US and Europe, lulled by decades of stability in their countries after the second world war – decades in which they have waged war overseas but never seen life totally upended at home – simply didn’t want to recognise the threat.
"People are not terribly good at estimating risk. Wishful thinking, overestimation of resources, and other factors can cloud our judgment of risk. This may have happened during the current pandemic," Taylor said.
(2) There is a potential political cost for a government if they invest resources by precaution and the risk doesn't materialize:
"The challenge faced by government is whether and when to act on a health threat. If you act swiftly and the outbreak isn’t as bad as feared, then government gets criticised for overreacting. If you adopt a wait-and-see approach and move too slowly, then government gets criticised for underreacting," says Steve Taylor, professor at the University of British Columbia and author of The Psychology of Pandemics.
As an example of point (2), during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic Roselyne Bachelot was Minister of Health in the French government. She purchased 94 million vaccines, but only a small proportion turned out to be actually used. As a result she was widely criticized for wasting public money. I assume that there are other examples of this kind, where a politician loses some political points because they made a safe but costly decision.
It seems that when an epidemic threat presents itself a government must make a call between:
- Taking the threat seriously and therefore mobilizing important resources for an overall unlikely epidemic crisis, with a high risk to appear as overreacting and wasting public money.
- Taking minimal conservative measures, which is unlikely to be sufficient if the crisis materializes. However this will likely appear as the "normal" choice to make, since nobody could objectively have anticipated the intensity of the crisis.
Assuming a country where the citizens are not particularly educated about the cost/benefit ratio of public health decisions (typically they didn't experience any health disaster recently), is it even possible for a rational political leader to choose the safest option?
Note: since my conclusion is rather depressing, I'm sincerely happy to have answers which point out flaws in the above reasoning :)