Why Governments Struggle to Make the Right COVID-19 Decisions

As Easter passes us by, it’s hard to imagine anyone who would have thought that we would be in the situation we are in. Many countries and cities are going back into lockdown as they struggle to deal with COVID-19 variants and most are trying to ramp up vaccine delivery as quickly as possible, hoping that all industries could reopen before the year ends. 

A year into a global pandemic, we are still seeing decisions being made that don’t quite make sense. The governments that did a good job in April 2020 now seem to be struggling a year later. Why is it so hard to get decisions right for COVID-19? 

Beyond the obvious — never seen before the virus, rapidly changing conditions, etc. — I believe there are 4 strategies or tactics that all governments and businesses aren’t following.

Binary Thinking Instead of Concurrent

Last year, the United States was the poster child for a country that wasn’t handling the pandemic well. Cases & deaths were going up with no end in sight. Today, the US is running one of the largest vaccination campaigns in history and moving at an incredible pace. The country looks poised to have a strong economic recovery and to reopen faster than other countries. 

It is true that the United States has local capabilities to produce vaccines, but we also see the government and businesses operate concurrent strategies. For example, the FDA just approved at-home testing kits to make it easier for people to comply with travel regulations that required negative tests. Sporting leagues like the NBA are planning to allow attendees who have negative tests.

Other countries are operating in a binary mode: lockdown or herd immunity through vaccination. For most countries, the second option is months away. We know more about the virus now, and we could likely find ways to bring back travel and other industries if there was a desire to run concurrent strategies to deal with the virus.

Limited Data

The talk of the town now is the variants that are taking over. The trouble is that some countries have limited data on how much the variants are actually spreading. Expecting that the virus was going to mutate wasn’t unexpected, it’s what viruses do. 

We also started to see new variants last year, so this also isn’t the first time we hear about this concept. Yet, governments are being taken by surprise.

Granted, I see quite a few dashboards out there showing all the other metrics such as ICU patients, testing numbers, positivity rate, and others. It’s just a matter of being ready to track highly likely future outcomes instead of being blindsided by them.

Doing the Right Things But Saying the Wrong Ones

The Federal Reserve in the US has learned that it’s important to take bold action when the economy is going sideways and to say the right things. Comments can be misinterpreted, and clarity is of the utmost importance. Jerome Powell, the current chair of the Fed, has been complimented on his consistent and easy-to-understand messaging. 

Public Health governments haven’t quite internalized this lesson. They may be doing the right thing, based on their conditions, but the messaging isn’t always clear. 

For example, in British Columbia, the government has been saying that things were fine despite the potential risk from variants. Almost overnight, the tone changed, and things were no longer fine. You can’t blame people for acting as things were progressing well if that’s what you were telling them.

You also occasionally have governments who outright blame specific groups, as it happened in BC when the Premier singled out the 20 – 39 age group. They may be behind the majority of cases, but they are also more likely to be working in customer-facing jobs, more likely to be affected financially, and last in line for vaccine. 

Inconsistency & Convoluted Strategies

Some of the restrictions are inconsistent, which confuses people. Why ban indoor dining but not indoor wine tasting? If you meet outdoors, are you still limited to a bubble of 6 people? If you were exposed to the virus but aren’t showing symptoms, why can’t you take a test to confirm it instead of being forced to quarantine for 14 days?

Perhaps the most convoluted tactic from the pandemic are the color-coded schemes created by some governments. In Canada, Ontario created one of these color-coded frameworks. It’s so confusing that I don’t even think the government themselves knows how it works. Worse yet, the colors were changed halfway through the pandemic. In NY, Governor Cuomo had trouble explaining their color-coded map to journalists.

I get the intent behind the colors. Why should all regions be treated the same when they have vastly different case numbers and populations? In theory, small towns should have different restrictions compared to large cities. 

The trouble is that by adding precision, you end up confusing more people. Everyone needs to figure out what they can and can’t do, and you don’t want people to avoid compliance simply because they don’t know what is going on.

The pandemic will provide countless case studies in data usage to convey facts, decision making, and human behavior. These case studies are fascinating to read back in hindsight, but they aren’t as enjoyable to be part of. Everyone is doing their best, and I look forward to seeing governments and businesses continue to adapt to a once-in-a-lifetime event.

One more thing before you go! Do you know how to get more insights out of your data? 

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