OPINION – For evil and good

Macau Business | April 2022

By José I. Duarte | Economist, Macau Business Senior Analyst

Public policies are often hard to design, implement and evaluate. The broader the topic and the bigger the potential impact of the policies, the greater the associated uncertainties and operational complexity. The needs for both focus and context will often conflict. 

It is as easy to define the immediate objective and observe its direct effects as it is to lose track or fail even to anticipate unintended, delayed, or indirect effects. Longer-term and harder-to-see consequences may not be less important than the most immediate tasks and targets – but weighing them in may prove hard.  

Be what may, we still need to design such policies as thoroughly as achievable, mobilize all the resources we can to implement them, and evaluate our performance to learn lessons that will serve us better in the future.

Public health matters, especially those concerning, as is the case today, new epidemics, are among the severest challenges for public authorities and the public alike. They can have profound and lasting impacts on multiple social levels and are, for many, literally, a matter of life and death. 

Further, they can easily lead to social antagonism, complicating even the best efforts to quell the spread and minimize social and economic impacts, themselves sources of other problems. Ignorance and fear – a terrible blend – may take prominent positions on people’s perceptions and opinions. People in authority may add to the disarray, failing to convey timely and appropriate information and assurances. These are not matters to tread lightly or opportunistically. 

A new pathogen brings a new set of unknowns. Experience from earlier outbursts of other pathogens will provide precious guidance but cannot fill in what we don’t know about the new germ, which only time and experience will allow us to find out.

Moreover, given the uncertainty, alternative evolution paths need to be mapped and ranked based on their likelihood and impact. Preparations must be made for path corrections or transitions, but this adds stress to the available resources. Staff with the required qualifications in the required numbers may not exist. 

Yet, paraphrasing a Portuguese saying, we can confidently say no evil never ends. Sooner or later, we will be out of our current predicament. As a matter of sound public policy, time will come to evaluate, here as everywhere, the various administrations’ acts during the crisis. Indeed, nobody expects anyone to have been perfect; that would be beyond the human realm. But three issues will be prominent in that examination. 

First, how well-informed and risk-aware were the ordinary persons, without having unwarranted fears or unsubstantiated beliefs? How did the authorities convey accurate, valuable, and timely information to the public and adapt it to changing circumstances? 

Factual, usable information is not a minor issue. Half the battle is possibly won if individuals and families can take care of and protect themselves adequately, pondering their specific circumstances and risks. 

Second, how successful was the drive to protect the general population? Mainly, what was done to prevent, first, and then treat when needed, the most vulnerable groups, including older adults and those with pathologies known to make them exceptionally vulnerable.

Finally, how were other costs factored into policy assessments and decisions? Namely: other health costs (untreated or undiagnosed conditions, lowering of care, for example); social and psychological costs (mental health, social isolation, educational standards), and economic costs (loss of jobs and income, economic inefficiency).

The aphorism mentioned earlier also says “No good ever lasts.” As fatalistic as it may seem, it is undoubtedly true. We will need all the lessons we can muster from this crisis one day.