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Blog: "COVID-19: There are more questions than answers" - Charlie Woods, SUII

02-04-2020

"There are more questions than answers"
Charlie Woods is EDAS's Policy and Practice
sub-group Chair and Director of the
Scottish Universities Insight Institute

So sang Johnny Nash in the early seventies. It seems particularly apt as we think about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. As we scrabble about to make sense of what’s happening, the final line of the chorus also seems to be particularly appropriate - “And the more I find out the less I know”. Hopefully, things will become clearer, but we are only in the foothills of understanding at the moment.

It certainly feels like things will be different. It may well be that some longer-lasting improvements occur, for example, as people learn from what worked well from cooperating and breaking down silos to tackle the crisis – this was certainly the experience of Finland and Ireland in previous emergencies. But we must also recognise there might possibly be some backward moves as people and countries become more defensive and frightened and seek to isolate themselves further.

In the latest Fraser of Allander Commentary, published in late March 2020, Graeme Roy alluded to some of the possibilities:

“The economy that will emerge from this will look quite different and not just because many businesses may struggle to survive. How individual sectors and businesses will adapt over the next few months – from retail through to universities – will change behaviours forever. The government’s response to the public health crisis is arguably the first step on a new social partnership between the State and business, perhaps unlocking a much broader conversation about inequalities and sharing the proceeds of growth more evenly across society.”

Writing in the Guardian around the same time, William Davis was clear on breadth of the pandemic’s impact globally, and the potential long term importance of the current crisis, if not the outcome:

“It will take years or decades for the significance of 2020 to be fully understood. But we can be sure that, as an authentically global crisis, it is also a global turning point. There is a great deal of emotional, physical and financial pain in the immediate future. But a crisis of this scale will never be truly resolved until many of the fundamentals of our social and economic life have been remade.”

John Kay and Mervyn King’s new book ‘Radical Uncertainty’ highlights the important distinction to be made between risk and uncertainty. Risk is something where the parameters of possible outcomes are reasonably well understood and meaningful probabilities can be calculated to aid decision making. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is full of unknowns and any attempt to apply probability analysis is liable to suffer a version of ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’. Decision making in times of uncertainty needs to be concerned with trying to better understand underlying trends, narratives and possible scenarios - as they put it, by asking ‘what’s going on?’ and using this as a guide to decision making. Not easy when many traditional storylines don’t seem to apply any more.

What are some of the questions that might guide our understanding of what’s going on, or could go on, particularly from the perspective of the economic system? Here is a starter for ten as a contribution to the process of beginning to get our heads around a new narrative:

  1. What will be some of the longer term changes in consumer behaviour - how will priorities change as people get a fresh insight into what’s really important for wellbeing?
  2. How will people feel about travelling in future?
  3. How will our understanding of other global emergencies and actions to tackle them evolve?
  4. What will be the impact on the growth of online retail and what are the implications for high streets?
  5. What will be the spatial and infrastructure implications?
  6. How will agglomeration economies be effected?
  7. What will be the impact on the design of supply chains?
  8. How will political priorities change in relation to the market’s role in the wellbeing of wider society
  9. How will the relationship within and between the public, private and third sectors evolve?
  10. What have we learned about how our financial system operates and what are the constraints on investment and innovation?

So, many more questions than answers and this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only by beginning to frame the questions we might begin to glean some understanding. As Einstein is quoted as saying ‘the important thing is to not stop questioning’.

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