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  • Author or Editor: Andy Alaszewski x
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Global Policies, Narratives and Practices
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The past 30 years have seen risk become a major field of study, most recently with the COVID-19 pandemic positioning it at the centre of public awareness, yet there is limited understanding of how risk can and should be used in policy making.

This book provides an accessible guide to the key elements of risk in policy making, including its role in rhetoric to legitimise decisions and choices.

Using risk as a framework, it examines how policy makers in a range of countries responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and explains why some were more successful than others.

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Analysing risk is generally seen as a way of predicting and managing the future, but it can also be used to explain what went wrong in the past. When there is a major disaster with a large loss of life and/or an existential threat to society, then there is pressure to investigate. Inquiries provide a mechanism for investigating the causes of disasters, identifying why risk was poorly managed and attributing blame for failures. Inquiries are a way of neutralising criticism of failures to respond effectively to risk. By appointing independent authoritative experts to investigate their actions, agencies can acknowledge their failures and shortcomings, make amends to those harmed, and demonstrate a willingness to learn lessons and avoid making the same mistakes again. They can also redress reputational damage. While COVID-19 was still spreading round the globe, the actions and inactions of governments were already coming under scrutiny and becoming subject to inquiries, especially by legislatures in democratic countries that have a duty to oversee the executive. Political leaders were aware of such scrutiny, and responded by seeking to present their actions in the best possible light or by trying to deflect blame.

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The COVID-19 pandemic was inextricably linked to risk. The emergence of a new highly infectious and lethal virus from Wuhan in late 2019 created uncertainty, and policy makers sought to assess the risk it presented. The concept of risk shaped the experience of the pandemic in different ways. With initially limited evidence available, the ways in which policy makers framed the new disease shaped the responses they adopted, whether zero-COVID versus wait and see. Once community transmission was established, measures to limit harm were shaped by risk categorisation and risk work in hospitals. While policy makers claimed to be following the science in their decision making, risk issues were contested within scientific communities and outside, given the lack of consensus and transparency. Policy makers have argued that a proper inquiry cannot take place until the pandemic is over. This has not stopped inquiries being set up. In countries with high infection and death rates, such as the US, UK and Brazil, inquiries have blamed policy makers for failing to recognise the risks of SARS-CoV-2 and for failing to take and communicate timely action.

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In modern society, risk plays a key role in individual and collective decision making. It provides a way of predicting the future and accounting for mistakes in the past. In early 2020, the rapid spread of a highly infectious virus (SARS-CoV-2) that caused illness (COVID-19) especially among the elderly and other vulnerable individuals threatened to overwhelm health and social care services and cause widespread social and economic disruption. Policy makers sought to make sense of and manage the uncertainties of this new virus. Risk provided one way of doing this. It was a way of identifying the potential danger, identifying who was most exposed to it and what actions could be taken to mitigate it. As a technical tool to assist decision making, risk depends on using evidence from past events to predict future incidents. In the early stages of the pandemic, such evidence was lacking, so policy makers had to frame the new disease, and the ways they did this had fateful consequences. Risk is attractive to policy makers because it appears to provide a technical framework for decision making. However, it addresses the probability of different outcomes, and such outcomes not only have different values but can also impact in a range of ways on different groups in society. Risk assessments and the decisions based on them are underpinned by value judgements. In the pandemic, policy makers were reluctantly forced to make such judgements.

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In modern society, risk plays a key role in individual and collective decision making. It provides a way of predicting the future and accounting for mistakes in the past. In early 2020, the rapid spread of a highly infectious virus (SARS-CoV-2) that caused illness (COVID-19) especially among the elderly and other vulnerable individuals threatened to overwhelm health and social care services and cause widespread social and economic disruption. Policy makers sought to make sense of and manage the uncertainties of this new virus. Risk provided one way of doing this. It was a way of identifying the potential danger, identifying who was most exposed to it and what actions could be taken to mitigate it. As a technical tool to assist decision making, risk depends on using evidence from past events to predict future incidents. In the early stages of the pandemic, such evidence was lacking, so policy makers had to frame the new disease, and the ways they did this had fateful consequences. Risk is attractive to policy makers because it appears to provide a technical framework for decision making. However, it addresses the probability of different outcomes, and such outcomes not only have different values but can also impact in a range of ways on different groups in society. Risk assessments and the decisions based on them are underpinned by value judgements. In the pandemic, policy makers were reluctantly forced to make such judgements.

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In modern society, risk plays a key role in individual and collective decision making. It provides a way of predicting the future and accounting for mistakes in the past. In early 2020, the rapid spread of a highly infectious virus (SARS-CoV-2) that caused illness (COVID-19) especially among the elderly and other vulnerable individuals threatened to overwhelm health and social care services and cause widespread social and economic disruption. Policy makers sought to make sense of and manage the uncertainties of this new virus. Risk provided one way of doing this. It was a way of identifying the potential danger, identifying who was most exposed to it and what actions could be taken to mitigate it. As a technical tool to assist decision making, risk depends on using evidence from past events to predict future incidents. In the early stages of the pandemic, such evidence was lacking, so policy makers had to frame the new disease, and the ways they did this had fateful consequences. Risk is attractive to policy makers because it appears to provide a technical framework for decision making. However, it addresses the probability of different outcomes, and such outcomes not only have different values but can also impact in a range of ways on different groups in society. Risk assessments and the decisions based on them are underpinned by value judgements. In the pandemic, policy makers were reluctantly forced to make such judgements.

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The development of different forms of media enables individuals to access a range of competing sources of information. Individuals have to decide which sources they trust. Social media can provide forums within which ‘networked publics’ can interact. While such forums can be open, interactive and egalitarian, they can also be dominated by individuals who accumulate a substantial following, so-called influencers. When such influencers are politicians, social media take on some of the characteristics of a social movement in which a charismatic leader communicates with his or her followers. In the US, Donald Trump used social media, especially Twitter, to create and connect with his supporters. Conspiracy theorists take some of the reasonable doubts about contemporary science and technology, extend them and weave them into theories that deny the benevolent motives of governments and experts or express the view that conventional therapies such as vaccination are harmful, for example. In seeking to refute conspiracy theories, government agencies seldom address the reasonable doubts raised about science and technology. During the pandemic, social media facilitated the spread of conspiracy theories. Individuals were cut off from their normal social networks and sources of reality, and as many experienced increased anxiety and uncertainty, pursuing conspiracies could be a satisfying pastime.

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One of the key role of governments in modern democratic societies is to protect their citizens by identifying and mitigating the risks they are exposed to. To provide such protection, the government needs to draw on experts’ knowledge. In normal times, this process tends to take place behind closed doors and attracts relatively little attention. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, experts took on a more prominent and public role. In making decisions that impacted on the lives of all citizens, politicians claimed to be ‘following the science’, and called on experts to legitimate these decisions by endorsing them in public, at televised briefings, for example. The relationship between science, policy and risk management in the pandemic was complex. The acceptance of scientific knowledge by policy makers and in the wider community was shaped by the social standing of the scientists and the extent to which their ‘knowledge’ fitted within pre-existing knowledge and perceptions. ‘Following the science’ implies that scientific knowledge provides an objective representation of the physical world and that rational action can be based on such action. Scientific knowledge can and is contested, and policy makers made political decisions about which scientists and institutions they will listen to.

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Framing a disease is a way of naming and categorising it, and of attributing it to a cause or set of causes that shape individual and collective responses. Framing allows the identification of the key features of a novel situation. A frame does not provide a comprehensive picture; rather, it highlights key features. The effectiveness of this device depends on how well it captures salient characteristics. In the case of COVID-19, two alternative frames emerged at the start of the pandemic: COVID-19 as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) versus COVID-19 as seasonal flu. Initially, countries that adopted the SARS frame adopted zero-COVID policies, and used public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus. In contrast, countries that framed COVID-19 as seasonal flu adopted a wait-and-see or herd immunity approach, which allowed the virus to spread. As infections and deaths rose, they were forced to adopt lockdown measures to protect their health services. However, with the development of vaccines and the emergence of less lethal variants, these countries were able to normalise everyday life while zero-COVID countries had to find exit strategies.

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One way of thinking about risk is in terms of the probability of one or more outcomes. Probability provides a way of using knowledge derived from the observation of past events to predict the likelihood of similar outcomes in the future. There is a strong technical and objective reality to probability: it is often expressed numerically. In contrast, outcomes are more subjective and relate to personal and collective values. When choices are made on behalf of others and the outcomes affect different social groups, the choices made are shaped by the collective values attributed to different outcomes and different social groups. In high-income countries, policy makers were unwilling to explicitly identify and own the value systems that underpinned decisions related to the allocation of limited resources during the pandemic. The use of risk as an apparently technical neutral concept effectively masked and concealed implicit value decisions. Policy makers were willing to accept, without public debate or ethical scrutiny, expert advice about the allocation of resources, such as the categorisation of at-risk groups and priorities for COVID-19 vaccinations.

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