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COVID crisis: what kind of inquiry do we need to learn the right lessons?

What a COVID inquiry will probably look like and what it should really look like.

I solemnly swear ... Amer Ghazzal/Alamy Live News

Boris Johnson recently announced that a UK inquiry into the government’s handling of COVID-19 will start in 2022 (with a parallel one planned in Scotland), and many more will emerge all over the world. But how should such inquiries be designed and run?

It’s highly likely that the most traditional models of inquiries will be adopted, just because that’s what people at the top are used to, or because they look politically expedient. But the pandemic prompted extraordinary innovation and there is no reason why inquiries should be devoid of any. The pandemic also affected every sector of life and was far more “systemic” than the kinds of issues or events addressed by typical inquiries in the past. That should be reflected in how lessons are learned.

So here are some initial thoughts on what the defaults look like, why they are likely to be inadequate, and what some alternatives might be.

A brief history of inquiries

There is a long tradition of inquiries after big public disasters or crises. In the UK, these have included: the Chilcot report into the Iraq War, the Hutton inquiry prompted by the death of Dr David Kelly, the Grenfell Tower inquiry, Lord Leveson’s inquiry on abuses by the media, and the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

There are also many other types of inquiry: parliamentary (one estimate suggests that there have already been around 60 COVID-related inquiries conducted by different select committees); royal commissions, audits that try to get to the truth; as well as internal civil service inquiries; and more localised inquiries, such as the one following the Mid-Staffordshire hospital deaths.

The UK political system is clearly fond of inquiries, and typically the first calls made by the media and opposition parties when something goes wrong is that there should be one. Some of these are governed by UK government legislation passed in 2005, which tried to standardise their formats, with a key aim to ensure that inquiries would be more trusted.

Yet inquiries continue to be denounced as “inside jobs” and “establishment stitch-ups”, and this will be a key challenge for any inquiry into COVID-19. The problem isn’t helped by the tendency of the government to appoint favourable people to run its own inquiries – which then usually conclude that no serious mistakes were made.

The standard inquiry model

Inquiries generally aim to find out: what happened, why, who’s to blame, and how to prevent it from happening again. Taking their models from the law and courtrooms, with witnesses, cross-examinations and written judgments, they happen in a physical place, and the aim is to establish the key facts, determine guilt, and then recommend new rules or laws to prevent a repeat of mistakes.

The default for any COVID inquiries will be very similar. As in the past, a leading establishment figure with a legal or governmental background will be put in charge. Written and oral evidence will be taken. A series of reports will be produced at some point in the future.

We can expect many groups to be nervous about the prospect of such an inquiry, and to wish to shape it to protect themselves: those politicians who made a series of misjudgments, particularly in the autumn of 2020; scientists whose advice at various points, particularly early on, may have been erroneous; officials whose machineries for crisis management were shown to be very uneven at best. Many people will be working hard to establish narratives and explanations to protect their reputations.

In general, governments will probably want pandemic inquiries that stretch as far as possible into the future. In contrast, opposition parties will probably want short, sharp inquiries with conclusions ahead of the next election. Neither may actually serve the public interest very well.

Hierarchical models and their limits

The traditional model of inquiry is a highly centralised, formalised and legalistic approach based on prose; a hierarchical exercise designed for hierarchies, apportioning blame to some of the people in charge.

This approach satisfies a deep human need for explanation and justice – if something has gone wrong, we want to see who is to blame and to see them shamed or punished. Westminster-style parliamentary systems are particularly keen on “sacrificial accountability”, while the US has its own style of often quite partisan inquiries.

But there are also serious limitations with this approach. It can cut against the kinds of honesty and self-awareness that are vital for learning. It can become a kind of theatre, encouraging performance rather than understanding.

It is less democratic both in practice and in spirit than the court system, which has juries to represent the public. It generates big incentives to distort or divert.

It’s also not a particularly good way to change how a complex system works or a way of giving people a chance to express their pain and grief, and to get answers from the powerful. This has been an important aspect of some inquiries – such as Grenfell – and is a vital part of post-conflict inquiries. Without the catharsis that comes from hearing testimonies from experience, it’s very hard to rebuild trust.

Whole-of-society approaches

There are many different options for inquiries ranging from “truth and reconciliation” inquiries, no-fault compensation processes and the ways industries such as airlines deal with crashes, to academic analyses of events like the 2007-08 financial crash. They can involve representative or random samples of the public (citizens’ assemblies and juries) or just experts and officials.

Inquiry options over two key dimensions: how centralised or decentralised the inquiry is and how much the goal is blame or learning. Author provided

Over the next few weeks at IPPO (the International Public Policy Observatory) we will be developing a more comprehensive taxonomy of inquiries with colleagues around the world and exploring pros and cons. How should they make sense of the many different levels of governance and decision making involved in COVID? Should they have distinct stages?


Read more: COVID-19: how The Conversation helps build bridges between research and policy


A crucial issue is to ask the right questions. Some should be basic questions of competence and process (what right and wrong decisions were made about lockdowns?). But the crisis has also thrown up many more fundamental issues: what have we learned about loneliness and isolation, how could we create better machineries for coordination between national and local government (the UK is particularly weak in this respect), or how should science advice be organised in the future, particularly to make more use of social sciences that were fairly marginal within Sage, which provides scientific and technical advice to support government decision makers during emergencies.

Alternative inquiry models could be more distributed and decentralised, creating spaces for many institutions to think about and absorb the important lessons. We could think of this as a “whole of society” approach to learning, to enable evidence-based deliberation on the issues and lessons that matter to many institutions and communities. For example, the lessons for schools are likely to be very different from those for the police, and they are most likely to be accepted by teachers if people they respect – including other teachers – are closely involved.

The COVID-19 crisis was uniquely wide-ranging and systemic. It needs a comparably systemic and inclusive model of inquiry. At the very least, let’s have a discussion. It’s highly likely the most traditional model will be adopted just because it’s what people at the top are used to. But that would be a huge wasted opportunity and would probably leave behind more distrust and suspicion rather than less.

You can read a longer version of this article on the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) website.

Geoff Mulgan is co-investigator at the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO)

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Huge Dock Worker Protests In Italy, Fears Of Disruption, As Covid ‘Green Pass’ Takes Effect

Huge Dock Worker Protests In Italy, Fears Of Disruption, As Covid ‘Green Pass’ Takes Effect

Following Israel across the Mediterranean being the first country in the world to implement an internal Covid passport allowing only vaccinated citize

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Huge Dock Worker Protests In Italy, Fears Of Disruption, As Covid 'Green Pass' Takes Effect

Following Israel across the Mediterranean being the first country in the world to implement an internal Covid passport allowing only vaccinated citizens to engage in all public activity, Italy on Friday implemented its own 'Green Pass' in the strictest and first such move for Europe

The fully mandatory for every Italian citizen health pass "allows" entry into work spaces or activities like going to restaurants and bars, based on one of the following three conditions that must be met: 

  • proof of at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine

  • or proof of recent recovery from an infection

  • or a negative test within the past 48 hours

Via AFP

It's already being recognized in multiple media reports as among "the world's strictest anti-COVID measures" for workers. First approved by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi's cabinet a month ago, it has now become mandatory on Oct.15.

Protests have been quick to pop up across various parts of the country, particularly as workers who don't comply can be fined 1,500 euros ($1,760); and alternately workers can be forced to take unpaid leave for refusing the jab. CNN notes that it triggered "protests at key ports and fears of disruption" on Friday, detailing further:

The largest demonstrations were at the major northeastern port of Trieste, where labor groups had threatened to block operations and around 6,000 protesters, some chanting and carrying flares, gathered outside the gates.

    Around 40% of Trieste's port workers are not vaccinated, said Stefano Puzzer, a local trade union official, a far higher proportion than in the general Italian population.

    Workers at the large port of Trieste have effectively blocked access to the key transport hub...

    As The Hill notes, anyone wishing to travel to Italy anytime soon will have to obtain the green pass: "The pass is already required in Italy for both tourists and nationals to enter museums, theatres, gyms and indoor restaurants, as well as to board trains, buses and domestic flights."

    The prime minister had earlier promoted the pass as a way to ensure no more lockdowns in already hard hit Italy, which has had an estimated 130,000 Covid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

    Meanwhile, the requirement of what's essentially a domestic Covid passport is practically catching on in other parts of Europe as well, with it already being required to enter certain hospitality settings in German and Greece, for example. Some towns in Germany have reportedly begun requiring vaccination proof just to enter stores. So likely the Italy model will soon be enacted in Western Europe as well.

    Tyler Durden Sat, 10/16/2021 - 07:35

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    Tracking Global Hunger & Food Insecurity

    Tracking Global Hunger & Food Insecurity

    Hunger is still one the biggest – and most solvable – problems in the world.

    Every day, as Visual Capitalist’s Bruno Venditti notes, more than 700 million people (8.8% of the world’s population)..

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    Tracking Global Hunger & Food Insecurity

    Hunger is still one the biggest - and most solvable - problems in the world.

    Every day, as Visual Capitalist's Bruno Venditti notes, more than 700 million people (8.8% of the world’s population) go to bed on an empty stomach, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

    The WFP’s HungerMap LIVE displayed here tracks core indicators of acute hunger like household food consumption, livelihoods, child nutritional status, mortality, and access to clean water in order to rank countries.

    After sitting closer to 600 million from 2014 to 2019, the number of people in the world affected by hunger increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    In 2020, 155 million people (2% of the world’s population) experienced acute hunger, requiring urgent assistance.

    The Fight to Feed the World

    The problem of global hunger isn’t new, and attempts to solve it have making headlines for decades.

    On July 13, 1985, at Wembley Stadium in London, Prince Charles and Princess Diana officially opened Live Aid, a worldwide rock concert organized to raise money for the relief of famine-stricken Africans.

    The event was followed by similar concerts at other arenas around the world, globally linked by satellite to more than a billion viewers in 110 nations, raising more than $125 million ($309 million in today’s dollars) in famine relief for Africa.

    But 35+ years later, the continent still struggles. According to the UN, from 12 countries with the highest prevalence of insufficient food consumption in the world, nine are in Africa.

     

    Approximately 30 million people in Africa face the effects of severe food insecurity, including malnutrition, starvation, and poverty.

     

    Wasted Leftovers

    Although many of the reasons for the food crisis around the globe involve conflicts or environmental challenges, one of the big contributors is food waste.

    According to the United Nations, one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. This amounts to about 1.3 billion tons of wasted food per year, worth approximately $1 trillion.

    All the food produced but never eaten would be sufficient to feed two billion people. That’s more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe. Consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa each year.

    Solving Global Hunger

    While many people may not be “hungry” in the sense that they are suffering physical discomfort, they may still be food insecure, lacking regular access to enough safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development.

    Estimates of how much money it would take to end world hunger range from $7 billion to $265 billion per year.

    But to tackle the problem, investments must be utilized in the right places. Specialists say that governments and organizations need to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions, increase agricultural productivity, and invest in more efficient supply chains.

    Tyler Durden Fri, 10/15/2021 - 23:30

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    Retail And Food Sales: If It’s Not Inflation, And It’s Not, Then What Is It?

    OK, so we went through the ways and reasons consumer price increases are not inflation, cannot be inflation, are nowhere near actual inflation, and what all that really means. The rate they’ve gone up hasn’t been due to an overactive Federal Reserve,…

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    OK, so we went through the ways and reasons consumer price increases are not inflation, cannot be inflation, are nowhere near actual inflation, and what all that really means. The rate they’ve gone up hasn’t been due to an overactive Federal Reserve, so it has to be something else. This is why, though the bulge has been painful, it’s already beginning to normalize. Without a persistent monetary component (in reality, not what’s in the media) the economy will adjust eventually.

    It already has. Several times, and that’s part of the problem.



    If not money, and it’s not, then what is behind the camel humps? No surprise, Uncle Sam’s ill-timed drops along with reasonable rigidities in the supply chain.

    An Economist might call this an accordion effect. One recently did:

    The closures and reopenings of different industries, coupled with the surges and lags in consumer purchasing during the pandemic, have caused an “accordion effect,” says Shelby Swain Myers, an economist for American Farm Bureau Federation, with lots of industries playing catch-up even as they see higher consumer demand.

    Not just surges and lags, but structural changes that have been forced onto the supply chain from them. With the Census Bureau reporting US retail sales today, no better time than now and no better place than food sales to illustrate the non-economics responsible for the current “inflation” problem.

    When governments panicked in early 2020, they shut down without thinking any farther than “two weeks to slow the spread.” This is, after all, any government’s modus operandi; unintended consequences is what they do.

    The food supply chain had for decades been increasingly adapted to meeting the needs of two very different methods of distributing food products; X amount of capacity was dedicated to the at-home grocery model, while Y had been set up for the growing penchant for eating out (among the increasingly fewer able to afford it). Essentially, two separate supply chains which don’t easily mix; if at all.

    Not only that, food distributors can’t simply switch from one to the other. And even if they could, the costs of doing so, and the anticipated payback when undertaking this, were and are massive considerations. McKinsey calculated these trade-offs in the middle of last year, sobering hurdles for an already stretched situation back then:

    Moreover, many food-service producers have already invested in equipment and facilities to produce and package food in large multi-serving formats for complex prepared-, processed-, frozen-, canned-, and packaged-food value chains. It would be highly inefficient to reconfigure those investments to single service sizes.

    And if anyone had reconfigured or would because they felt this economic shift might be more permanent:

    For food-service producers, the dilemma is around the two- to five-year payback period of new packaging lines. Reinvesting and rebalancing a food-service network for retail is not a straightforward decision. Companies making new investments would be facing a 40 percent or more decline in revenue. And any number of issues could extend the payback period or make investments unrecoverable. Forecasts are uncertain, for example, about the duration of pandemic-related demand shifts, the recovery of the food-service economy, and the timeline of returning to full employment.

    So, for some the accordion of shuttered restaurants squeezed food distributors far more toward the grocery and take-home way of doing their food businesses. And it may have seemed like a great bet, or less disastrous, as “two weeks to slow the spread” morphed to other always-shifting government mandates which appeared to make these non-economics of the pandemic a permanent impress.

    More grocery, less dining. Forever after.

    In one famous example, Heinz Ketchup responded to what some called the Great Ketchup/Catsup? Shortage by rearranging eight, yes, eight production lines to spit out their tomato paste in individual servings rather than bottles. CEO Miguel Patricio told Time Magazine back in June (2021) there hadn’t actually been any shortage of product, just the wrong packaging for it:

    It’s not that we don’t have ketchup. We have ketchup, but in different packages. The strain on demand started when people stopped going to restaurants and they were ordering takeout and home delivery. There would be a lot of packets in the takeout orders. So we have bottles; we don’t have enough pouches. There were pouches being sold on eBay.

    But then…vaccines. Suddenly, after over a year of the above, by April 2021 the doors were flung back open, stir-crazy Americans flew back to their local pubs and establishments (see: below) and within months, according to retail sales, it was almost back to normal again. Meaning pre-COVID.



    The accordion had expanded back out but how much of the food services supply chain had been converted to serve the eat-at-home way which many companies had understandably been led to believe was going to be a lasting transformation?

    Do they undertake even more costly and wasted investments to go back? Maybe they resist, just shipping what they have even if not fully suited in the way it had been before all this began.

    Does Heinz spend the money to reconfigure those same eight production lines so as to revert to producing their ketchup in bottles? Almost certainly, but equally certain they’re going to take their sweet time doing it; milking every last ounce of efficiency – limiting their losses, really – they can out of what may prove to have been a bad decision (again, you can’t really fault Mr. Patricio for being unable to predict pandemic politics).

    Rancher Greg Newhall of Windy N Ranch in Washington likewise told NPR that he has the animals, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, goat, but distributors are caught in the accordion (Newhall didn’t use that term):

    NEWHALL: People don’t understand how unstable and insecure the supply chain is. That isn’t to say that people are going to starve, but they may be eating alternate meats or peanut butter rather than ground beef.

    GARCIA-NAVARRO: Newhall says he hasn’t had any issues raising his animals. It’s the processing and shipping that’s the bottleneck, as the industry’s biggest players pay top dollar to secure their own supply chains.

    The usual credentialed Economist NPR asked for comment first tried to blame LABOR SHORTAGE!!! issues, including those the mainstream had associated with the pandemic (closed schools forcing parents to stay home, or workers somehow deathly afraid of working in close proximity with others) before then admitting:

    CHRIS BARRETT: And there’s also the readjustment of the manufacturing process. As restaurants are quickly opening back up, the food manufacturers and processors have to retool to begin to supply again the bulk-packaged products that are being used by institutional food service providers.

    With US retail sales continuing at an elevated rate, the pressures on the goods sector are going to remain intense.


    Because, however, this is not inflation – there’s no monetary reasons behind the price gouge – the economy given enough time will adjust. And it has adjusted in some ways, very painful ways.

    Painful in the sense beyond just hyped-up food prices and what we pay for gasoline lately, the services sector has instead born the brunt of this ongoing adjustment. Consumers have bought up goods (in retail sales) at the expense of what they aren’t buying in services (not in retail sales); better pricing for sparsely available goods stuck in supply chains, seeming never-ending recession for service providers.

    According to the BEA’s last figures, overall services spending remains substantially lower than when the recession began last year. And it shows in services prices which had been temporarily boosted by Uncle Sam’s helicopter only to quickly, far more speedily and noticeably fall back in line with the prior, pre-existing disinflationary trend following a much smaller second camel hump.



    Once the supply and other non-economic issues get sorted out, we would expect the same thing in goods, too. It is already shaping up this way, though bottlenecks and inefficiencies are sure to remain impediments and drags well into next year.

    Those include other factors beyond food or domestic logistical nightmares. Port problems, foreign sourcing, etc. The accordion has played the entire global economy, and in one sense it has created the illusion of recovery and inflation out of a situation which in reality is nothing like either.

    That’s the literal downside of transitory. We can see what the price bulge(s) had really been, and therefore what it never was.

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