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Clara Ferreira Marques

Why Our Leaders Fail to Learn Pandemic Lessons

Common decision-making biases aided the spread of Covid-19 until it was too late.

Never thought it would come here.

Never thought it would come here.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

It’s the worst epidemic of our times, a health emergency that has now left more than 420,000 infected, 18,800 dead and paralyzed the global economy. The scale has been clear for weeks. All the more baffling, therefore, to watch poor decisions being repeated, over and over again.

From Italy to the U.S. and Britain, each government first believes its country to be less exposed than it is, overestimates its ability to control the situation, ignores the real-time experience of others and ultimately scrambles to take measures.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now closed schools and imposed a lockdown to limit the lethality of the coronavirus in Britain. It’s a sharp course correction for a man who, less than a month ago, said he was shaking hands in a hospital and spoke of business as usual, while Italy was pulling down the shutters.

He’s not alone. With populism in the ascendant, leaders from U.S. President Donald Trump to Indonesia’s Joko Widodo have worried about immediate political concerns first, rather than the impending pandemic. Countries that have successfully learned from others and from past experience, say, Taiwan, are far outnumbered by those apparently incapable of taking lessons even from near-neighbors.