Are we being ruled by experts now?

by: in General Corona

Everyone agrees that we are living in a very special time, to say the least, in a situation that none of us has ever experienced. We are also exposed to news articles and opinions on a daily basis that discuss the way forward and the decisions to be taken. Should the (partial) lockdown of the country continue? Should borders be open or closed? Should the schools open again? Or should we all start to wear face masks? But who is taking these decisions? 

Looking at the media and the wealth of information, it is easy to get the impression that it is mostly ‘experts’ who are leading the way. We are all looking at the daily news reports of the RIVM, the WHO or Johns Hopkins University, and virologists and public health experts are more visible than ever. This is a good thing, as it demonstrates the value and importance of science in this situation. But scientists are (as we all are) confronted with a completely new disease entity where new data are coming in on a daily basis. Step by step, they are trying to unravel the puzzle of COVID-19.

The principles of science are used to verify or falsify hypotheses, and the data obtained can support the making of choices and the taking of decisions. But should these decisions be solely based on medical data? Or mustn’t we also include other scientific opinions from psychologists, economists, sociologists and legal experts?

The German National Academy of Sciences—Leopoldina—has made an attempt to address the crisis with this kind of multidisciplinary expert advice. The Academy came to a number of recommendations that are relevant not only for Germany but also for other countries, including ours. What are the most important recommendations in this report?

  1. Improve the modelling to better understand the course of the pandemic and the predicted outcomes. To achieve this, there should be broad testing of people to address infection and immunity status across the population, following the approach of South Korea, for example, which had remarkable success in controlling the spread of the virus.
  2. Minimise psychological risks. For the preventive measures to be accepted, an intrinsic motivation based on self-protection and solidarity is more important than the threat of sanctions. Help and support services must be made available for risk groups that suffer more from the consequences of the current restrictions, such as ageing citizens and those with chronic disease, children in difficult family situations or people exposed to domestic violence.
  3. Restart education. There should be a step-by-step reopening of the educational system, beginning with kindergarten, primary school and so on, respecting the measures of physical distancing and other preventive measures.
  4. Reopen public life to return to a new normal under the following conditions:
    • the new infections stabilise at a low level
    • the necessary clinical reserve capacities are made available and the care of other patients is resumed as normal
    • the known protective measures (hygiene measures, mouth and nose protection, distancing rules, increasing identification of infected persons) are observed in a disciplined manner
  5. Maintain financial stability as much as possible. In the short term, economic and financial policy must above all provide support to bridge the difficult situation. When the current health policy measures expire, further expansive fiscal policy impulses will be necessary in the medium term. On the expenditure side, additional resources are important for public investment, for example in healthcare, digital infrastructure and climate protection. The crisis also calls for European solidarity to the highest degree.
  6. Implement sustainability measures. Existing global challenges such as climate change and species protection in particular do not disappear with the coronavirus crisis. Political measures at national and international levels should be based on the principles of ecological and social sustainability, future compatibility, and resilience.

These recommendations have caused quite a stir in German politics, even leading the press to question whether we are now being ruled by experts (‘Expertenherrschaft’ was the headline of a German newspaper). The answer is no; experts give substantiated advice whereas the decisions and responsibility lie in the hands of the elected representatives in our government. But it is wise for them to take advice from scientific experts into consideration rather than listening to the ‘buzz’ on social media (no, it is not good to drink bleach!). I hope that governments will continue to do so. But the issues at hand also require interdisciplinary collaboration to find comprehensive solutions rather than implementing one-sided actions. Let us hope that our government(s) take balanced decisions—taking the advice of experts into consideration, but also taking their own responsibility.