A blue computer generated image of a hand on a dial labeled "risk management."

Government officials and elected leaders have exhibited some of their best and worst instincts since the COVID-19 outbreak. Trying to safely steer a nation, or community, through the pandemic has been a daunting task that citizens should appreciate no matter their politics. There are no easy decisions when it comes to balancing public health and sustaining the economy.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this Saturday, I’m struck by one enduring parallel between dealing with terrorism and our current crisis: We are doing more harm to ourselves than the pandemic itself is doing because many nations — notably the U.S. — haven’t taken resiliency to heart and risk management isn’t part of politicians’ vocabulary.

Whether at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the local county commission, government officials appear to be guided by good intentions. But they have also been slow to pivot as our understanding of the coronavirus improved over time. That could have prevented collateral deaths, lost livelihoods and shuttered businesses.

That observation isn’t an endorsement of deniers’ irresponsible views that COVID is equivalent to the flu, that no prophylactic measures are needed and we immediately should have returned to life as normal because any restrictions infringe on individual liberty. 

It is to say that politicians are so risk-averse that their default move when confronted with a looming challenge is to avoid risk at all costs rather than put systems in place to manage the risk, minimizing the impact while enabling society to continue functioning in a healthy manner.

Consider how many school districts deal with winter weather. My daughters attended school in Loudoun County, Virginia, and every time there is a forecast for 1 or 2 inches of snow, the schools close. Loudoun County is in the mid-Atlantic region. It’s not Buffalo, New York, but it’s not Savannah, Georgia, either. We get snow every year and sometimes a lot of it. The county should by now have the right equipment and know-how to deal with light snow. 

So why do such minimal snowfall totals drive administrators to shut down? Because they are worried a bus somewhere might encounter slippery conditions and be involved in an accident. Better to shut down the system than take a chance of hurting students or getting sued. Safety should be the highest priority and some snow and ice conditions justify canceling class, but being overly cautious impacts learning and causes economic ripple effects when parents are forced to stay home with their school-aged children.   

Living life in fear of a low-probability event isn’t good for individuals or nations. 

During the first COVID wave, government officials were correct to implement stay-home orders and lock down public spaces. We didn’t know much about the new invader. Maintaining maximum social distance until health experts got a handle on the situation to keep from overwhelming hospitals was the right thing to do. But officials stuck with the initial prescriptions too long even as the science changed about the benefits of wearing face masks, and the minimal risk from fleeting exposure to others, touching objects or outdoor gatherings. 

Rather than adjust, officials and businesses maintained low occupancy levels for restaurants, bars, salons and churches, and kept schools closed. The result: Tens of thousands of businesses went under, millions lost jobs, children suffered educationally and emotionally, depression and suicides increased, and many people died or suffered because they postponed routine medical care and examinations.

Borders and airlines

One of COVID’s greatest victims is the airline industry. Restrictive cross-border and travel measures continue to limit international passenger traffic. The longer airlines can’t get to positive cash flow, the greater the chance that many will be unable to pay back mounting debt and will eventually fail. 

Willie Walsh, the outspoken director general of the International Air Transport Association, has taken governments to task for not collaborating on a uniform approach to managing travel that takes into account science that shows travel by air is quite safe if masks and other protocols are followed.

“Many of the decisions were not based on science or protecting the health and welfare of people. They were purely political. It was political risk that politicians were assessing. How are voters going to judge me based on the decisions I take?” the former British Airways and IAG Group chief said last week at the Cargo Network Services conference in Miami.

He lashed out at the U.K. government for requiring travelers to take one or two expensive PCR tests (about $110) after arrival, depending on the length of stay, even though there have only been 45,000 positive cases out of 5 million tested. 

“And yet, they shut the country down. They forced people in some cases into expensive hotel quarantine or self-isolation at home. And they argued that it had to be a PCR test because they had to be able to sequence the test. … They sequenced 11,000. Politicians were saying we’ve got to do this because we’ve got to protect the health and welfare of the nation. Total bollocks. They were doing this because this was a political decision they were taking,” Walsh said.

“We’ve got to hammer home with governments that if they want an effective airline industry, air cargo industry, they’re going to have to come together and agree on common standards and regulations because we can’t have a situation whereby you can fly into one country if you do an antigen test, but if you flying into another it’s a PCR test, or two PCR tests. There should be a common set of rules, and governments should have been looking to work together to try and keep people moving,” he said.

After the 9/11 attacks, air travel stopped for several days and travel across land borders was subjected to full vehicle and document inspections that created massive traffic jams, delaying delivery of critical goods and forcing some auto plants to shut down. The overall economic impact from those reactionary moves was relatively muted, but what if there were a terror attack involving ocean shipping and the millions of containers circulating around the world?

Some security experts worry that if terrorists successfully smuggle an explosive device, or dirty bomb, through a port in a shipping container, the U.S. will shut down ports until every container can  be screened. That would take months and severely injure the economy, essentially doing the terrorists’ job for them by magnifying the impact of a local incident to the national level. The primary reason for taking such drastic measures is that, despite post-9/11 security measures, we don’t have sufficient data on each shipping box to know for sure there isn’t a bomb inside. More robust scanning and advanced data sharing could enable authorities to quickly double-check for threats and keep the system running.

Similarly, with COVID, we should have invested in a medical system that could handle a surge of cases from a pandemic.

That is a systemic flaw, but in the short term, we should have returned to more normal routines accompanied by the best safety protocols: masks for everyone, good ventilation and immunizations as soon as possible. Opening up sooner could have quelled some — not all — of the distrust and anger directed at the government that is making it more difficult now to convince people to comply with restrictions as the delta variant spreads like wildfire.

Too restrictive

Zero tolerance isn’t a strategy, it’s a knee-jerk reaction. China, and other countries in Asia, have done a much better job containing COVID outbreaks because of greater social cohesion and acceptance of public health mandates. But officials there are going to extremes that are having damaging effects on the economy, global supply chains and even public sentiment. 

For Chinese authorities, one case is one case too many. A big motivating force: the Beijing Winter Olympics in February and a desire for full in-person audiences to showcase the nation to the world.

Consider that in the past 28 days, China has had 1,203 COVID cases and since the pandemic began, they have reported a total of 107,256 confirmed infections and 4,848 deaths. In the U.S. by comparison, the 28-day average is 4 million cases, bringing the total to 40 million, with about 650,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

Yet, when a Chinese dockworker or air cargo handler tests positive, authorities shut down the terminals for days or weeks. The Yantian terminal at the Port of Shenzhen was restricted to 20% of its capacity for nearly a month this summer, creating a massive backlog of ships and cargo that hurt manufacturers, retailers and agriculture producers that depend on reliable ocean transport. Officials closed a key terminal at the Port of Ningbo for nearly two weeks to make sure there were no other cases after a single positive test. And all-cargo airlines have canceled hundreds of flights at Shanghai Pudong International Airport after one of the main cargo terminals was put on a limited workload after a few positive tests. 

Those types of actions are likely to increase the momentum toward economic decoupling from China as the cost, and risks, of doing business there rise for multinational companies.

There has to be a better way in China and the U.S. We can live with terrorism, pandemics — and snow — if we put the right systems in place, invest in infrastructure and realize the goal is to manage risk, not eliminate it.

The delta variant, however, is an added risk that needs to be factored into the policy equation. Here again, bureaucrats and politicians were slow to reimpose mask mandates in order to help keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and schools open. Of course, anti-mask and anti-mask folks aren’t helping the situation. They want it both ways — full social opening without any reasonable public health measures to keep people safe.

As Willie Walsh said, “If we go through this again, we won’t be debating whether air cargo is relevant to the airline industry because we won’t have an airline industry. … We’ve got an industry that has more than twice the debt of Ireland, and the idea that this is an industry that can bear further regulatory costs is false.

“It will survive but it’s not going to survive if governments keep opening and closing borders; there needs to be a better response globally to ensure we can continue to serve customers, passengers or air cargo going forward.”

Being more nimble is something authorities should keep in mind whether regulating airlines, restaurants or schools.

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Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Eric Kulisch.


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