Learning the wrong lessons (2) The Sweden factor and panic time

“It’s all too complicated, it’s going to go massively wrong, we’ll lose money, jobs will go, national security could be put at risk. Others are handling this differently. We need to change course.”

That was the gist of the conversation I had a few time with my bosses. It was back in 1999 and we were implementing a new business system. It was part of our strategy to prevent our business being hit by the Y2K problem (popularly referred to as the Millennium bug).  No doubt, all around the world, others were having the same conversation.

You see, there is a point in any crisis where it becomes quite frightening for the decision makers. You are pretty much locked into the process now and to some extent you are travelling blind. You don’t know if you have made the right call. It is possible that for all the expert advice you have heard and all the careful risk assessments that you may have called it wrong. It’s a thankless task too. If you made the wrong call then you will be scapegoated. If you made the right call, it will be quickly forgotten. In fact, people may simply conclude that the crisis cannot have been that real after all (exactly what has happened with Y2K since).

Here we are in the middle of another crisis and we are at the stage where everyone is committed in to their approach. We are locked in and reversing the approach may not be impossible but may well prove challenging and costly.  Others are approaching things differently and in some cases appear to be getting different results.

China locked down entire cities and completely removed freedoms so that regions were quarantined against other regions. South Korea and Germany have done lots and lots of testing and seem to have allowed a much greater level of ongoing freedom.  Sweden continues to avoid a major lockdown. Meanwhile other countries went for lockdown much earlier than we did.

Now, no doubt there will be ongoing conversations amongst the epidemiologists across the world, comparing what they are seeing in their contexts and reviewing. However at the same time, there is also a very public and anguished conversation going on amongst the media. Unsurprisingly, different extremes are taken with some journalists arguing that the government should have imposed lockdown much sooner whilst others think that we should be going about normal business and that the scare is overcooked. Unsurprisingly, the commentator’s view on pandemic response is likely to align with their pre-existing political position.

The problem is two-fold

  • First that the journalists are not experts in pandemic control.  They are primarily experts in political drama.
  • Secondly, that mid-crisis is not a great time to be making judgement calls. We don’t know yet whether some have made the right call and others haven’t, whether all have made the right call in their context or whether we have all got it wrong.

You see there are some other questions we haven’t asked or grappled with fully yet.  These primarily centre on whether or not we are comparing like with like. This means that we may end up in a situation where a good result for the UK looks different to a good result for Germany or Sweden.

Here are some factors to consider

  1. That some countries may have been better placed to provide saturation testing. In Germany’s case they seemed to have had particularly expertise in the production of key testing equipment and material. I suspect South Korea has to be geared up for rapid mass testing due to proximity to North Korea and the threat of biological warfare.+
  2. Some countries may have been better placed and equipped to respond due to their economic circumstances. The UK is still carrying a high level of debt and has endured a decade of austerity. This means we do have to ask questions about the polices behind this. However, if we are going to critique the austerity measures we also need to look at the policies in the decade before that led to austerity.
  3. Different countries experience different factors in human geography. Some are more densely populated with higher proportions of urban population.  Others have more spread out populations.  Italy has a higher proportion of elderly people. Population mobility will be a factor too.  This will include mobility within countries and between. It is intriguing that Italy, Spain and the UK are on well-travelled migration paths. Meanwhile New York and London are both major international hubs with multi-cultural populations. Will those factors affect how a pandemic spreads?
  4. Cultures differ too. It is easier to impose restrictions on a socially compliant culture that prefers structure and order than one where the preference is towards autonomy, debate and creativity. 

Without factoring in those considerations and acknowledging that we don’t have all the information in, we may risk drawing the wrong conclusions.

Once again, I want to turn us back to thinking about how this links to church life. We can be very quick to panic and draw the wrong conclusions in the middle of things too. Further, we are very good at looking around at what others are doing. There is a temptation to copy others and if their approach doesn’t work, to dump the strategy and pick up another fad. Are you following City to City or Acts 29 approaches to church planting? Are you with IX Marks and standing against multiple congregations or following the long established practices of Anglican Churches such as All Souls, Christ Church Fulwood and St Ebbes by embracing a multi-service approach?  Are you Proc Trust or Welsh Calvinist in your approach to preaching?  We could go on with this list couldn’t we. 

We need to remember that different churches, missions and movements are operating in different contexts. Those contexts will mean that some things are possible where they are and some are not possible.  This does not mean that we can’t learn from each other but we need to take those factors into consideration and be careful and cautious in the conclusions we draw.

%d bloggers like this: