I am their leader; I must follow them


In an episode of Yes, Minister, Jim Hacker, in a discussion of a serious political issue says to Sir Humphrey that "It is the people's will. I am their leader; I must follow them."

There are signs all around the world of Jim Hacker right now among political leaders fumbling for a way out of this COVID-19 mess. They are looking for guidance from the people.

The severe lockdown restrictions imposed in most, but not all, countries to contain the spread of COVID-19 were a response made in large part through political fear. No political leader wants to be accused of doing nothing. The decision tree is asymmetric - do nothing and if things turn out to be really bad, you are shamed into the political wilderness. Do nothing and things turn out not very bad at all, you are criticised as being reckless and lucky. Whereas, take action and things turn out bad, you are justified. Take action and things are not bad, you claim that your actions saved your country. 

So severe lockdown measures were imposed, in the main. Now, a month or so into the lockdowns, it is readily apparent that the initial predictions of hundreds of thousands of deaths in each country, and millions in the more populous, were wildly wrong. Those predictions were used as the basis for scaring people into accepting the lockdowns. Now the bind tightens - continue the lockdown or ease? Continuing the lockdown is decimating economies. Easing the restrictions risks a second wave of virus infections. 

Governments are clearly unsure what to do. The messages coming out are mixed and incoherent. In some cases, we hear that the shutdown will continue for at least 6 months. In other cases, we hear the governments are working on plans for phasing out restrictions in the next few weeks. There are obviously some individuals in government who have begun worrying that the cure is worse than the disease. They are flying kites signalling possible future courses of action to see which ones get shot down by public opinion. 

The asymmetric decision tree that got the political leaders into the shutdown mode is now showing its asymmetry again, but this time they can't win. They can take one of two courses of action: ease or maintain the shutdown. The outcomes will be either continued reduction in infections as the virus disappears or a second wave of exponential growth and rapid rise in deaths. Now, whichever course of action is followed, the government cannot win - they will be either pilloried or criticised as reckless and lucky, depending on the outcome.

It is little wonder that they are behaving like Jim Hacker and looking for their people to lead him out of this mess.