Other than the budget, the current talk of the webinars is lockdown. This is natural at a time when no one really knows how to manage lockdowns. The best we have are country experiences suggesting each country must find its own solution within certainly broadly accepted policy parameters. How are we doing on this front?
The narrative around which this debate is commonly structured is the "Lives versus Livelihood" tradeoff, like it or not. There are lives advocates, livelihood advocates and advocates who challenge the existence of any such tradeoff. Our beliefs on this "tradeoff" shapes how we view the management of the lockdown.
Lest we forget, what Bangladesh did is to send public officials on holidays, locked out public transports, advised mobility restrictions and let factory and shop owners choose their own adaptations to the virus. Now that the holidays have ended, public transports are unlocked and mobility restrictions lifted, we are seeking to socially engineer a better-defined lockdown entry and exit strategy.
The spread of the virus and the state of the economy are both significantly worse than three months ago. The political will to reach out beyond the ruling party, the bureaucracy and connected businesses has not changed. All the deliberations about zoning, mobility restrictions, social distancing and hygiene in public spaces under the guidance of a well constituted high-powered task force sounds wishful.
The government is struggling to make up its mind on how to do it all over again. Recognizing the incorrigibility of the tradeoff between lives and livelihoods is a key to finding solutions capable of taming the virus while sustaining livelihoods.
A tradeoff is incorrigible if it can neither be refuted nor verified. A close friend recently drew my attention to the Protagoras Paradox, one that helps understand incorrigibility. So, pardon me for a light digression.
A Greek lawyer named Protagoras 2000 years ago. A young student apprenticed under him on the condition that he will pay the lawyer's fee the day the student wins his first case in the court. A few years elapsed after completing the training. The teacher did not receive any payment. Frustrated, the teacher decided to sue the student in a court of law.
The teacher thought: "If I win the case, as per the law, the student will have to pay me, as the case is about non-payment of dues. And if lose the case, the student will still have to pay me, because he would have won his first case. Either way I will get paid."
The student was equally excited, thinking, "If I win the case, I won't have to pay the teacher, as the case is about my non-payment of fees. And if I lose the case, I don't have to pay him since I wouldn't have won my first case yet. Either way I will not pay the teacher."
Both have equally convincing arguments! Neither can be refuted or verified.
The "lives" advocates consider taming the virus transmission the key to sustained economic recovery while the "livelihoods" advocates prefer going back to work as usual to keep the economy up, accepting the reality of the virus and betting on "herd immunity".
Hope for a vaccine or therapeutic is shared by both camps. Not just that. The "lives" advocates find livelihoods and the "livelihoods" advocates find lives on their sides. And irrefutably so with no known way of verifying who is right. In their attempt to accommodate both, the policymakers vacillated frequently leading to neither a full lockdown nor free rein on economic activities. Conflicting pressure from various interest groups contaminate response. Policy and politics are inseparable even under dire collective emergencies.
The real policy choice now is between a temporary complete lockdown in the hotspots followed by graded isolation or just leave it as in the (hard to define) status quo. What course of action will ensure social order? What will the public buy?
The public can see the futility of haphazard, uncoordinated and feeble enforcement of the restrictions on mobility and public interaction. Pro-open lobbies inside and outside the government have conveniently interpreted this frustration as "home fatigue" to justify lifting the restrictions disregarding the stage of contagion control. The latter cannot be wished away as the infection cases continue to grow exponentially. The public in general are scared too.
Lockdown does not find favor with many with seats at the policy table. Yet they have a dilemma because the medical community is recommending graded response. Going against this tide risks the perception that the government is not doing enough to protect public health.
A plethora of conflicting and changing evidence makes the choice a delicate judgment call. Model based evidence range from rosy to dooms day predictions globally, both on the epidemiological and economic fronts. Hard to decide which one to believe and which to discard. Yet choices are made by design or default under tremendous uncertainties.
Going back to the basics helps understand how such decisions end up being made assuming the best of intentions. In this case the basics come from decision theory. So, bear one last digression with me.
There are four types of decision rules used implicitly or explicitly at the individual and collective levels when making decisions under uncertainties.
The Realists compute the expected value under each action and pick the action with the largest expected value. The expected value of a random variable is the long-term average of its possible values when values have been realised a large number of times. Unfortunately, you cannot be a realist in this sense in the current situation. This virus is only 6 to 8 months old globally! The probabilities associated with the payoffs from each action under different state of the virus cannot be computed because Covid-19 has too short a history.
Living with radical uncertainties, some choose to be Optimists. They look at the best that could happen under each action and then choose the action with the largest value. Going for the most possible, they take the action with the best of the best-case scenarios – the maximum of the maximums. This is the case with many vaccine investors these days. They see large payoffs and discount the probabilities. No one on either side of the reopening-lockdown debate in Bangladesh is using this kind of a rule.
Some become Pessimists. It is easy to be so these days with the virus surging and resurging all over the world. Everything that can go wrong is going wrong. Choosing the action with the best worst-case scenario starts making a lot of sense. The lockdown advocates shudder at the thought of the virus spiralling out of control when restrictions on movements are lifted indiscriminately in a vastly underprepared public health system, leading to deepening of the economic recession.
So, go for the "best of the worst" – a strongly enforced lockdown in the hotspots until the virus spread is contained followed by graded reopening. This is like putting your money into a savings account instead of the stock market. China, Singapore and the New York State in the US did it promptly recognizing the aggressiveness of the virus.
There always are Opportunists who galore everywhere. Their decision making is based on opportunistic loss. They look at regrets associated with each action under different state of the virus and choose the action that has the minimum of the maximum regret. For any given state of the virus, such as spreading or contained, the regret is the difference between the payoff from the action and the best payoff possible in the same state of nature. Then you choose the action with the lowest maximum regret when the virus is spreading or contained.
Our garment industry saw the lowest maximum regrets in reopening the factories too quickly. They did not want to risk losing orders that have not been cancelled. Some did it to use the produced order as a pawn in their bargaining with buyers while others worried about losing orders to competing countries if they fail to deliver.
Individuals with opportunist mental models often spend their post decision time regretting their choices saying, "I should have done this, and I should have done that." The "public holiday" fans in Bangladesh are now hopefully beginning to see the bigger of the worst loss their strategy has ended up producing.
A burning example is Anders Tegnell, the architect of Sweden's controversial lighter lockdown policy for dealing with coronavirus. For the first time he has conceded that Sweden should have imposed more restrictions to avoid having such a high death toll. "If we would encounter the same disease, with exactly what we know about it today, I think we would land midway between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world did," said Mr Tegnell in a recent interview.
In Bangladesh, we have customised this way of thinking a bit more to shirk public responsibility as follows:
We would have done this earlier if we knew then what we know now. That being water under the bridge, we must continue what we did because livelihood risks have multiplied. The onus of making the reopening work against the virus is on the general public. Our obligation is to provide advisories on hygiene and social distancing. The public is "free to choose".
The alternative voice asks whether we want to play it safe or risk regretting, if not already, for not playing it safe. The costs, both lives and money, in either case are not knowable before the fact. Realism is impossible, given the short confines of Covid-19 history. Optimism is unwarranted, given what we know the virus can do when there are no guards in place. Opportunism has produced regrets that would rise as the economy fails to adequately restart, leaving the vast majority with no access to chartered jets, at the mercy of a virulent virus.
Pessimism can avert avoidable losses of lives and livelihoods if the time bought is used well. This kind of pessimism is natural when an inadequately understood and highly contagious virus is out to get the public. Minimising the downside risk of losing lives and livelihoods is the imperative of the time. When driving blind on slippery slopes, keep the gear low and do not push the accelerator too hard. That is your best chance to stay alive with the vehicle intact!