Governments’ ‘muddle-through’ Covid-19 policies are misguided

After a year of enduring restricted life under Covid-19, and with little light at the end of the tunnel, a critical assessment is called for regarding the failure of ad-hoc authoritarian fiat in dealing with the pandemic.

When dealing with crisis management, policymakers should be rational actors, weighing the merits of all policy choices based on relevant information and available resources.

However, as a practical matter, governments usually lack the foresight, information, resources and preparedness to cope with crises. Policy decisions may be swift but are frequently based upon incomplete information. Such expediency inevitably leads to the abandoning of rationality and to “fallback” choices driven by bureaucratic “muddling through” and/or by politicisation of a crisis for partisan ends, rather than best practices targeted for viable solutions.

The lack of rationality by policymakers during the pandemic was highlighted by the Great Barrington Declaration, which proposed an alternate solution of “focused protection”. The proposal said that the harm caused by expansive lockdowns is mentally and physically worse than the pandemic itself

Minimising or avoiding the damage caused by lockdowns by sheltering vulnerable populations such as the elderly, while letting the less vulnerable go about their normal lives would reduce harm. The authors are globally respected epidemiologists, including Dr Sunetra Gupta, Dr Martin Kulldorf and Dr Jay Bhattacharya, from Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford Universities, respectively.  Famous South African scientist and Nobel prizewinner Michael Levitt from Stanford University is also a critic of the current hysterical and absolutist approaches, advocating similar modes to that of the Declaration.


The declaration encountered an avalanche of scathing criticism condemning it as dangerously flawed, unscientific and unethical. Among its critics were prominent bureaucrats, such as Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organisation, the UK’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and Anthony Fauci, the US chief medical adviser to the president and the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

Their intense reactions underscored the uncertainty and a fear of failure on the part of the defenders of the “muddling through” of the status quo. Bureaucrats such as Fauci and Gheybreyesus have during the past year become the poster boys of Orwellian “doublespeak”.

The politicisation of the pandemic meant that heavy-handed, overreaching government policy has resulted not only in harming other societal values and institutions, but also in producing only partial success in coping with the pandemic. 

The prominent British constitutional lawyer Lord Sumption remarked: “Coercive powers are exercised over citizens on a scale never previously attempted… In the face of public resistance against lockdowns fear is deliberately stoked up using the language of impending doom.”

“Muddle through” policies have unnecessarily impaired democracies and national economies and, alarmingly, are escalating. 

Public protests and legal actions against excessive lockdowns and restrictions clearly signal public anger against government efforts to create “nations of sheep”. In the US, municipalities have selectively banned public gatherings, using the bans as a hammer to abuse the civil liberties of certain groups such as churches, which are not favoured by secular authorities. These same political authorities have simultaneously turned a blind eye to the protestors and violent mobs supportive of their political agendas.

The opportunism of South African politicians in banning alcohol and tobacco speak more to therapies for personal abuses and efforts to address societal ills unrelated to the virus, rather than to seek specific remedies for Covid-19. Public distrust of politicians and bureaucrats has been intensified by the widespread, corrupt tender process used to buy essential equipment in the fight against the virus. Unfortunately, examples of politicians who ignored the rules they have enforced on the “little people”, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and dining in closed restaurants, are too numerous to list.  As Professor Alex van der Heever from Wits University argued, “You give  too much power to a centralised structure and if that fails, it fails for everybody.” 

The economic fallout of governments’ “muddle through” restrictions has been severe. In its wake lies the debris of job losses, bankruptcies, disrupted supply chains and GDP contraction.

The government’s decision to lock down was arbitrary as to what constituted “essential” and “non-essential” businesses and services. These overreaching decisions were of a top-down, coercive nature, bypassing the essential need to negotiate consent in democratic societies. Citizens in democratic societies should be outraged that the cost of the lockdowns were disproportionately carried by the private sector. It is a challenge to find examples of public sector bureaucrats, regardless of their perceived usefulness, who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

The long-range effects of “muddle through” policies are also likely to have serious, unintended consequences. The ban on travel, imports and exports, and the disruption of supply chains will likely reverse many benefits of globalisation, notably millions who have been lifted out of poverty will sink back into a survival existence. 

The loud elitist voices in favour of protectionism will exacerbate the rapidly declining prospect for workers benefiting from outsourcing and offshoring in the manufacturing and service industries. The government’s stimulus packages create unintended consequences such as higher taxes and the unproductive use of capital, dependency on government handouts and discouragement in seeking employment, additional debt burdens for firms, and growing national debt exposure. A number of emerging markets, including South Africa and Argentina, have borrowed heavily to pay for pandemic-related expenditures. The spectre of debt crises will likely loom for over leveraged countries in the near future.

Some forecasts of infection and mortality rates are wildly exaggerated. The media have failed to hold governments accountable for policies based on questionable information. Instead, the media often take the easy road of sensationalism or, even more cynical, promote their own political agenda for larger government involvement in society. Citizens have learned that they must remain vigilant in evaluating their news sources.

Another perspective gained is that structural problems which existed in a society before the pandemic will be worse in the post-pandemic period due to the damage governments’ “muddle through” policies have caused to the economy. For South Africa, anticipate endemic unemployment and hunger, underperformance in economic output and government service, questionable standards of governance and persistence of corruption, challenging fiscal problems, and ideological opportunism to continue in the transformation of society and the economy.

“Focused protection”, rather than overly broad “muddle through” policies, is likely to lead to more rational, long-term results for all of us.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Gerrit Olivier
Gerrit Olivier is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Pretoria.
Jay van Wyk
Jay van Wyk is professor of international business at the Pittsburg State University, USA

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