The View from the Chair, Tina McKenzie: April 2020

News 14 Apr 2020

The problem with 'now or never'

‘Factfulness’ by the late Swedish physician and academic, Hans Rosling, is a book well-known by key decision makers and business leaders across the globe. In it, the author sets out his view of the five global risks in the world today: Global Pandemic; Financial Collapse; World War; Extreme Poverty and Climate Change. Given that the book was published in 2018, the first risk may seem extremely perceptive, however the rationale for assessing these risks was quite simple: the first three had happened before, while the latter two are happening now, and in the case of poverty it is something we have continuously grappled with for centuries.

The key message running through the book is that ‘things are better than you think’. I appreciate that this message may be a hard sell at this incredibly difficult time, with so many lives lost and people and businesses undergoing incredible hardship. But, if we look at the data, the trend is toward longer term human progress; albeit there is, of course, much work to be done, particularly in parts of the world where people endure extreme levels of poverty. In Factfulness, the author seeks to fight against some human instincts which can often impair decision making. The ‘negativity instinct’ leads us to notice the bad more than the good, which causes us falsely to assume that everything is getting worse. The ‘blame instinct’ makes us look for a clear, simple reason why something has gone wrong, which is normally heavily influenced by our biases and misconceptions. This reaction blights our decision making, as the reasons behind why something has gone wrong are often more complex and not attributable to any one particular individual or group. In the response to the current pandemic we have seen plenty of blame allocated in various directions, which is unhelpful yet understandable, as people seek to give meaning to the unexplained.

 Another unhelpful instinct that we as humans possess is ‘the urgency instinct’. While taking urgent action can often be extremely helpful, such as moving out of the way of an out of control car, there are times when urgency can lead to negative outcomes and ill-thought through decisions which can, in themselves, cause long-term damage. The problem with ‘now or never’ is that it doesn’t provide us with enough time to critically evaluate all the data and evidence available to reach a measured decision. It may let us consider the ‘known knowns’ but certainly not the other variants of this Johari window that need to be considered to avoid unintended negative consequences. This has been reflected in the response to support the economy through the coronavirus emergency. As schemes have been developed, with great haste, there have been some flaws in their design. This is not to criticise Stormont and Westminster for moving quickly - indeed that is exactly what businesses were calling for in order to address the immediate cashflow issues which they were experiencing - however, it means that we should not rule out adjusting existing mechanisms or bringing forward new support once new information becomes available to ensure gaps are addressed.

While the self-employed scheme brought forward by the Chancellor helped many self-employed people, many slipped through the safety net, including those who have only recently become self-employed. Similarly, the grant schemes brought forward at Stormont will help many businesses that have premises, but won’t provide support for those who work from home or from their vehicles, who will equally have seen their income dry up. 

The response to coronavirus must not be defined by frantic ‘now or never’ decisions, driven by the unhelpful mantra of ‘we must do something’. This is the time for consideration and caution, not instinctive gut reactions. Businesses and society want to see careful, measured leadership to get us through this crisis in a way which allows the people and the economy to return to full health on the other side. Sometimes, until all information has been sought and considered, if it is not necessary to act, it can be necessary not to act.


Meet the author

Tina McKenzie

Tina McKenzie

Chair, Northern Ireland Policy Unit (Strategic oversight for Devolved Nations), FSB