(I)n a disturbing study published late last year, economists Robert Tucker Omberg and Alex Tabarrok examined this issue further and found that “almost no form of pandemic preparedness helped improve or shorten the pandemic”. This was true whether one looked at indicators of medical readiness or more flexible cultural factors such as levels of individualism or confidence. Some countries responded much more effectively than others, of course – but there was no telling which ones would rise to the challenge looking at the indicators released in 2019. One response to this counterintuitive conclusion is that the GHS index is not doing a good preparation measurement work. Still, it seemed plausible then, and it still seems reasonable now.
…maybe we should take the Omberg/Tabarrok study seriously: maybe conventional preparations won’t help much. What follows? One conclusion is that we should prepare, but in a different way… Preparing for an agile system of testing and compensating self-isolated people would not have figured in many 2019 pandemic plans. It’s ok now. Another form of preparedness that could yet pay off is wastewater monitoring, which can cost-effectively detect the resurgence of old pathogens and the appearance of new ones, and can provide enough warning to stop some future pandemics. before they start. And, says Tabarrok, “Vaccines, vaccines, vaccines.” The faster our vaccine manufacturing, testing and production systems are, the better our chances; all of these things can be prepared.
One thing that seemed to matter, as Tim notes, was state capacity. In other words, it’s not so much about being prepared as being ready to act. And here I have a slight disagreement with Tim. He writes:
In an ill-prepared world, the UK is often thought to have been more ill-prepared than most, perhaps due to the strains caused by austerity and the distractions of the Brexit process.
I think the UK has understood three very important things. The UK was the first strict authority to approve a COVID vaccine. The UK has moved to first doses first and the UK has produced and conducted the largest therapeutic trial, the recovery test. Each of these decisions and programs has saved the lives of tens of thousands of Britons. Recovery attempt may have saved millions of lives around the world.
I am not claiming that Britain did everything right, or did everything it could have done, but these three decisions were important, bold and correct. The coexistence of high and low state capacities within the same nation can be surprising. The United States, for example, achieved an impressive feat with Operation Warp Speed, but simultaneously the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) failed and failed. Likewise, India maintains a commendable space program and an efficient electoral system, even while struggling with seemingly relatively simpler tasks, such as issuing driver’s licenses.
Instead of painting countries with a wide range of “high” or “low” state capabilities, we should recognize multidimensionality and divergence. How do political will, resources, institutional strength, culture and history explain the divergence in capabilities? If we understood the reasons for the discrepancy in capacity, we might be able to improve state capacity more generally. Or we could perhaps better assign tasks to the state or to the market with perhaps very different assignments depending on the country.