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CONTEXT

While no government wants there to be a pandemic, and would certainly prefer (hope) for it to just go away, they can only downplay it for a short time before it overwhelms the population and they must address it from a significantly weaker position than if they had acted decisively at the beginning.

In the smartphone era, information propagates instantly through informal networks (Facebook, WeChat, StackExchange, etc.) and is difficult to suppress.

QUESTIONS

After witnessing the COVID epidemic and failure to contain it in Asia, it spread to Europe and was poised to infect the west. Why did western hemisphere leaders downplay the pandemic’s threat instead of acknowledging the problem and communicating what would be done to reverse the issue? What is the political incentive for deferring acknowledgement and action?

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    Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to provide answers to the question. If you would like to answer, write a real answer. Such comments just distract from the real purpose of question comments. Like explaining what "detail or clarity" this question lacks according to the 3 close-votes it received. – Philipp Apr 6 at 15:36
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In hindsight it's clear that many governments should have taken the risk of a Covid19 pandemic much more seriously, but it's not that easy to anticipate the reach and intensity of the epidemic before it happens. There have been other serious threats before for which the containment strategy proved sufficient, and if a government allocates resources (for instance massive purchases of masks and ventilators) which end up wasted they are going to be criticized as well.

This article in the Guardian argues that most European countries were not as well prepared as some Asian countries because:

  1. There was no recent experience of a serious epidemic in the country, causing leaders to subconsciously underestimate the seriousness of the threat.
  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, 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.

Note: this answer is made of recycled material from a closed question of mine.

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    @Nelson A "perfect" response would require an oracle. Anything else is "risk management" (otherwise known as "speculation" otherwise known as "betting" otherwise known as "gambling"). – Aron Apr 6 at 6:45
  • I think this answer is maybe a bit too simplistic. Vaccine have (1) a relatively short shelf-life (months?) and (2) a relatively narrow target. In comparison, N95 have a shelf-life of 5 years and are applicable to any pandemic -- as a result, stocking up on masks, even if unnecessary for the current event, may also be explained as getting ready for the future. – Matthieu M. Apr 6 at 15:42
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    "[...] they are going to be criticized as well" - with the same intensity? If yes, why? Is there historical evidence for this? – Pedro A Apr 6 at 23:19
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    @MatthieuM. we tend to go more than 5 years between pandemics so likely they would still end up wasted - would probably be good if the manufacturers could be incentivised to keep more stock on hand so they could still send it out before expiry under BAU but had big stock piles for an emergency – Martin Smith Apr 7 at 9:40
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    "There is a potential political cost for a government if they invest resources by precaution and the risk doesn't materialize" - the even more cynical situation is when the precaution actually stops the risk from happening (but if it wasn't done then the results would have been catastrophic), but then the population sees that "nothing bad happened" and then concludes that the precaution was completely unnecessary (not realizing that it saved them) – vsz Apr 8 at 8:04
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There can be different motivations for this, ranging from mere bureaucratic "ostrich" cover-up, i.e. hope it goes away, which is probably what happened at city level in Wuhan in the early days, to more "rational" decisions not to do anything (or to implement limited/gradual responses), where "rational" means you have some other objective (to balance) than the short-term saving of lives. E.g. quote from a (former?) economic adviser of Trump:

We put a lot of weight on saving lives,” said Casey Mulligan, a University of Chicago economist who spent a year as chief economist on Mr. Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers. “But it’s not the only consideration. That’s why we don’t shut down the economy every flu season. They’re ignoring the costs of what they’re doing. They also have very little clue how many lives they’re saving.” [...]

In novel outbreaks like this, a lot of the epidemiological factors that affect the severity of the outbreak, including the famous R0 (how many people get infected by one who already is) and the ratio of asymptomatic to symptomatic infections are initially estimated pretty far from their ultimate value, which affects estimates for the CFR (case fatality ratio) and IFR (infection fatality ratio). For a past of such (over)estimation example see, H1N1/09.

"It's good to remember that when H1N1 influenza came out in 2009, estimates of case fatality were 10 per cent," said David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, who was working in public health at the time. "That turned out to be incredibly wrong."

"As the denominator is growing in terms of case numbers, and case fatality goes down and down ... you start to realise it's everywhere," he said.

The prediction job is hard even for the experts; the WHO got flack [from some quarters] practically for every recent pandemic, for "calling it wrong", e.g. as reported at the end of January 2020:

WHO's cautious approach to the [Covid-19] outbreak, which has been challenged by some critics, can be seen in the context of past criticism over its slow or too hasty use of the term, first used for the deadly 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic.

During that outbreak, the UN health agency was criticised for sparking panic-buying of vaccines with its announcement that year that the outbreak had reached pandemic proportions, and then anger when it turned out the virus was not nearly as dangerous as first thought.

But in 2014, the WHO met harsh criticism for dragging its feet and downplaying the severity of the Ebola epidemic that ravaged three West Africa countries, claiming more than 11,300 lives by the time it ended in 2016.

There are various economic models that attempt to suss the optimal a response to an outbreak (see e.g. Stock, Eichenbaum et al., Ornelas), but they key message here is that these models are quite sensitive to the aforementioned biological/biosocial parameters of the outbreak. For a (great) visual clue as to sensitivity to parameters/assumptions, the Economist has this graph in an April 11 article:

enter image description here

... meaning that getting a slightly wrong estimate for a parameter can result in countermeasures way off the intended result-path, even when you have a clue what your objectives are...

Which for politicians can be even more complicated, if their main objective is to get re-elected (or not overthrown in a coup) because there's the additional proxying layer of how the public (or power players) are going to react/judge the measures relative to a counterfactual scenario that never plays out. Even when things "go wrong" in one country, it's fairly difficult even for experts to say why exactly (i.e. eliminate all confounders), never mind having the public make a correct cross-country assessment; see famous question here about the US public opinion on US vs. South Korea responses to the outbreak, which exhibited great polarization depending on the respondent's political affiliation.

So there are multiple layers on which a political response can "sink or swim". Additionally, there has been a rally around the flag effect for political leaders during this outbreak, apparently regardless of what they did, so to some extent they can "do no wrong" in the public eye in such circumstances i.e. when the outbreak does turn out serious/disastrous. (I'm guessing we'll see additional political science research on this in the future, i.e. whether the initial denialist/downplaying political response has any effect effect whatsoever on later public opinion or if it just gets completely swamped by the later swings in public opinion when an outbreak proves really serious, e.g. via "rally round the flag".)

Somewhat related: regarding how China eventually made the "right call" (when stopping the pandemic became their main objective), there's a March 31 paper (Tian et al.) in Science now on a model of their measures. This paper found that just shutting down transport from Wuhan or just implementing "Level 1" quarantines in cities with local outbreaks was not going to be enough in terms of limiting the pandemic. They had to do both. Which however is the most costly, economically, in the short run at least. They actually shut down transport from all affected cities, which in hindsight had no additional benefit though. And another point (of comparison) from that paper, with regard to H1N1/09:

The dispersal of COVID-19 from Wuhan was rapid (Fig. 3A). A total of 262 cities reported cases within 28 days. For comparison, the 2009 influenza H1N1 pandemic took 132 days to reach the same number of cities in China (see methods in Supplementary Materials).

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It's useful to understand the dynamic of governance: 'Authority' is always power granted to a leader by citizens or subjects, and in order to maintain power a leader must maintain the impression that s/he is the rightful person to use and maintain that power. This is particularly clear in democratic nations where leaders periodically need to convince voters to re-elect them, but even authoritarian regimes need to maintain an air of competence and rightfulness, or risk outright revolt. The death knell for most authoritarian regimes is when the leader becomes an object of criticism, scorn, or ridicule.

With this in mind, leaders faced with natural disasters like pandemics have an imperative to behave as though they are completely in control of the situation, and that often means a refusal to suggest in public that there is any 'situation' that needs to be controlled. The more authoritarian the leader is, the less inclined they will be to admit there is a problem, because admitting there is a problem is tantamount to admitting they to weakness. Any such admission of weakness is a direct threat: it might cause the public to question the leader's fitness to wield authoritative power, leading to political unrest as other potential leaders seek to grab that granted power for themselves.

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    Of course the problem with this is that when the situation actually does become uncontrolled, the leaders who denied that there was a problem inevitably become objects of scorn & ridicule. – jamesqf Apr 5 at 19:23
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    @jamesqf: they bet on the public having short memory and a lot of myside bias in terms of party allegiance to other "standards". Political polarization plays a substantial role in this. E.g. BBC video ridiculing Trump for his changes in positions is probably going to have zero effect on Republicans. – SX welcomes ageist gossip Apr 5 at 19:37
  • @jamesqf Trump's approval rating is at its highest now, so the scorn and ridicule doesn't seem to be fatal. Although it's common that approval ratings jump in the midst of a crisis, we'll have to see what it's like after we come out of it. – Barmar Apr 6 at 4:11
  • @Barmar: Though one should note that "highest" is not particularly high. 44-49%, per a quick search. For constrast, after 9/11 GW Bush's approval ratings were in the 80-90% range. – jamesqf Apr 6 at 19:30
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Imagine, with the benefit of hidsight, what would have been the best possible early policies against COVID-19.

Now imagine a government doing that on three separate occasions against SARS, H1N1, then Ebola. Alongside other governments which did much less and it turnet out allright.

It would have looked exaggerated.

See Normalization of deviance.

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    I think you’re both overestimating the cost of quick, decisive public health action compared to the crisis measures we’re dealing with today and underestimating the amount of work that went into ensuring that those other outbreaks did not become major pandemics – divibisan Apr 6 at 4:07
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    @divibisan So is the general public. And how something "looks", in this case, is determined by how the general public sees it. – probably_someone Apr 6 at 14:50
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    @probably_someone My point is that we didn't just ignore SARS, H1N1, and Ebola and hope they went away. We took decisive and effective public health action (and also got lucky too) which resulted in these potential pandemics being controlled without major cost to the public. What we're going through now with long-term lockdowns is not the best possible early policy against COVID-19, it's a last-minute desperate move to get it under control. If we did take proper action at first, the costs (both actually and perceived) would by much, much lower than the actions we're taking now – divibisan Apr 6 at 15:29
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    @divibisan I agree. But the general public doesn't know that. And until you can inform them of that fact (and convince them you're not lying), the optics of these kinds of things won't change. – probably_someone Apr 6 at 16:44
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    @divibisan I am not sure if that is true. The asymptomatic transmission time of COVID-19 makes containment much harder than for SARS, H1N1, and Ebola. – DrMcCleod Apr 6 at 17:41
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Why do governments downplay or cover-up pandemics in their early stages?

Because most problems disappear over time, even when nothing is done. So why would anyone enact unpopular measures if there is a chance those are not needed?

SARS, H1N1, Ebola: in all those cases this strategy worked or would have worked. COVID-19 is the exception to the rule.

Politicians who kick the can down the road, will barely ever be held responsible for past mistakes. If some decision turns out to be wrong many years later - a big if - the politician is already in some other role where people don't even know about that past mistake. While the current one responsible will just blame the predecessor. Everyone escapes responsibility in practice.

As a result, "kicking the can down the road" is a valid strategy for politicians. In fact, as almost all politicians at the higher levels act that way, it looks like it is requirement to survive the lower tiers.

The uniqueness of COVID-19 is the speed with which inactivity is exposed and punished. The ones who didn't act quick enough two months ago, are still in power.

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  • This is a good answer for why they downplay problems in general, but pandemics are the rare case where the payoff is always in the short term. When they got the first warnings of the spread of COVID-19 in January everyone would have known that it would either become a pandemic this spring or not at all. – divibisan Apr 12 at 1:27
  • "While the current one responsible will just blame the predecessor". Or foreigners. A much more popular approach lately. Unlike predecessors, there are always foreigners available to blame. (And this isn't even remotely limited to epidemics.) – SX welcomes ageist gossip Apr 12 at 4:57

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