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Do we ever learn? Collective memory as a blind spot in KNAW report on pandemics

In its latest advisory report ‘Met de kennis van straks’ (‘With the knowledge of later’), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) maps out what Dutch science and society need to do in order to be well prepared – and thus ready – for future pandemics. However, the report pays scant attention to macro(economic) issues, which doesn’t do justice to this societal-medical problem, writes Peter van Bergeijk.

Source: Syaibatul Hamdi, Pixabay.

Introduction

If we have learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic in the Netherlands, it is that it is almost impossible for economists to make clear what our field is about. In fact, debates on economics all but stopped in my home country (Van Bergeijk 2022) [1]. Important insights from economics therefore did not sufficiently feed into other fields of science and policy.

From an economic point of view, the most important question is how to deal with the scarcity that arises during a pandemic. This requires insight into the effects and effectiveness of measures that have been considered and taken. I want to illustrate this with three topics that also provide concrete recommendations for improvement.

 

Be transparent about intended measures

A macroeconomic analysis is indispensable both because of the pandemic, which involves a simultaneous loss of a large part of the labour force, and because of measures including business closures and restrictions on gathering and movement. That up-to-date analyses of a flu pandemic were not ready in the Netherlands is an omission of the major policy institutions (CPB Netherlands Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Dutch Central Bank DNB), because the risk was known. On the eve of the COVID-19 outbreak, the ‘Geïntegreerde risicoanalyse Nationale Veiligheid’ (‘Integrated National Security Risk Analysis’ – ANV 2019) for example reported that a flu pandemic in the near future was both likely (5-50%) and a major threat for society with a significant impact on population and the economy at large.

However, the econometricians at CPB and DNB cannot be blamed for not foreseeing the lockdowns that were suddenly conjured out of the medical top hat in 2020. None of the national and international roadmaps anticipated lockdowns (van Bergeijk 2021a). As a result, not only policy analysts, but also scientists could not anticipate that lockdown instruments would be used. A first important conclusion is therefore that realistic roadmaps should be drawn up and published as early on as possible so that analyses of concretely considered (combinations of) instruments can be made in advance without the time pressure of an unfolding pandemic.

 

International comparative macro-research is needed

The KNAW report focuses mainly on improved accessibility of micro data (for example health status and socio-economic characteristics of large groups of individuals). This requires linking medical data files with data on socio-economic characteristics, either by means of long-term panels or through CBS Statistics Netherlands. At face value, this focus on micro and the Netherlands is understandable, but at the same time, one might argue that this focus is too narrow. After all, a pandemic is not a national problem, the micro-macro paradox can lead to bias, and a third relevant problem is whether the vulnerable are (or will be) adequately represented in the data. A very obvious problem with Internet panels, for example, is the under-representation of both the elderly and the disadvantaged and marginally poor, who are both more vulnerable and inherently more difficult to survey.

It is unfortunate that the KNAW focuses so much on the Dutch context. Every national context is unique and findings are therefore strongly determined by the conditions of time and place. ‘Met de kennis van straks’ uses these differences in context to justify an essentially national research strategy. Learning, however, actually requires making to make good use of differences in national contexts. Where regional policy in the Netherlands has proved to be impossible, researchers will have to look beyond national borders for differences in policies, institutions, and behaviour. National navel-gazing can be expected to lead to opportunities and threats being overlooked. It is important to start asking what the optimal design of our society would be from the perspective of pandemic resilience, lest the costs become too high. The second conclusion is therefore that building resilience in an evidence-based way requires extensive investments and structural change, which in turns requires research on the influence of differences between national contexts.

 

Final research findings do not exist

The economic view of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to change significantly in coming years. After all, definitive research findings do not exist. Consider, for example, the estimate for the growth rate of world GDP in the year 2020 provided by the IMF in its World Economic Outlook [2]. Figure 1 shows that successive estimates for 2021 and 2022 became slightly less negative each time. 2020 will never be a good year, of course, but the adjustments made to the historical data are not insignificant. It amounts to 0.3 percentage points, or 10 percent of the first estimate. The adjustments themselves moreover come as no surprise at all (van Bergeijk 2021b).

 

Figure 1. Adjustments made in four instances by the IMF to the 2020 world production growth estimates provided in its World Economic Outlook.

Source: IMF website, accessed 11 October 2022.

 

The medical impact of the pandemic will also take time to become clear. We know the number of people that got COVID-19 and whether they recovered or died due to infection, but we know neither the impact on the long run of the lockdowns on the health status of the population, nor the long-term effects of COVID-19 itself. This uncertainty does not mean that no general policy recommendations can be made. Cost-benefit analyses, for example, have shown that while short lockdowns may make a rational and cost-effective contribution during pandemic outbreaks, the same cannot be said of long-term lockdown policies. This is basically because at its core, a human life can only be saved once, while longer lockdowns continuously increase economic costs. So, whether such an insight is valid for the next pandemic is not the question. However, what is ‘short’ cannot be answered in advance. The third conclusion is that economics can play an important role in helping design macro trade-off frameworks to best fill in and adjust the parameters in the event of a breakout as soon as new insights become available.

 

Conclusion

Science pretends to know a lot and to be able to contribute much. In this regard, it is probably too big for its boots. Vaccines have been important, but if we can actually put the COVID-19 crisis behind us, it will be mostly thanks to the gift Mother Nature gave us, namely a less severe, more infectious variant that makes COVID-19 better socially manageable. It is human nature to draw some lessons after a pandemic has died out and then to forget them. It is remarkable that all the issues that came up during the previous pandemic, the Mexican Flu pandemic, remained unresolved and came back again during the COVID-19 pandemic. Science could and should play a much more important role here, not so much in research, but in education. It is actually strange that the report does not pay attention to the core task of science. Providing the knowledge about the previous pandemic requires a better place in the curricula of all fields of science. If not, our students, who will probably experience four to five more pandemics in their lifetime, will be not be prepared for the next one.


Footnotes

[1] Dutch readers may want to consult van Bergeijk 2021b.

[2] Another example is the resurgence of research on the economic impact of the Spanish Flu.

 


References

ANV, 2019, Geïntegreerde risicoanalyse Nationale Veiligheid, ANV Netherlands Network of Safety and Security Analysts http://www.rivm.nl/sites/default/files/2019-10/Geintegreerde%20risicoanalyse%20Nationale%20Veiligheid%202019.pdfhttp://www.rivm.nl/sites/default/files/2019-10/Geintegreerde%20risicoanalyse%20Nationale%20Veiligheid%202019.pdf

Bergeijk, P.A.G. van, 2021a, Pandemic Economics, Edward Elgar 2021.

Bergeijk, P.A.G. van, 2021b, De volgende pandemie: een deltaplan voor overleving, Walburg, 2021.

Bergeijk, P.A.G. van, 2022, The Political Economy of the Next Pandemic, Review of Economic Analysis, 14 (1), 27-49

KNAW, 2022, Met de Kennis van straks: De wetenschap goed voorbereid op pandemieën.


This article was originally published on MeJudice and has been republished with permission of the author and editors.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Peter van Bergeijk is Professor of International Economic Relations and Macroeconomics at the Hague-based Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University (ISS); one of the leading educational and research institutes in the field of development cooperation in Europe.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

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Urban heatwaves and senior citizens: Frugal solutions in The Hague

As The Netherlands is currently suffering from extreme heat, it is worth reminding ourselves of the effects of the latest heatwave, which took place from 10-16 August, 2020. Worryingly, the excess mortality was 37% higher among people receiving long-term care than the average in the previous weeks. Especially senior citizens (people aged 65 and above) are vulnerable to the negative health effects of heatwaves. They often do not feel thirsty, and accordingly, they do not drink enough. Due to their reduced mobility, they have difficulties in moving to cooler places such as parks. They also cannot afford to buy air conditioners or sunscreens. Hence, as we, Erwin van Tuijl, Sylvia I. Bergh, and Ashley Richard Longman, argue in this blog, there is a need for frugal solutions to protect seniors against heat. Frugal solutions are both affordable as well as “simple” . We present some frugal solutions we identified in a recent research project in The Hague, The Netherlands. We also discuss challenges that hinder development and usage of these frugal solutions.

Affordable solutions

1. Canopy © by ZONZ

The respondents in our survey ranked sunscreens and air conditioning highly as their preferred options to keep cool, but the purchase and operating costs are significant barriers. Although not many research participants knew about them, we found affordable alternatives. Instead of air conditioning, wet towels in combination with fans are an effective measure to keep cool, just like applying wet sponges or using a (foot)bath. Pragmatic alternatives for sunscreens are bed sheets to create shade, whereas sun sails/canopies (see picture 1), balcony awnings and window foils (picture 2) are more durable alternatives.

2. Window foil © by De Kock Raamfolie

These solutions can be obtained from specialised (online) suppliers, as well as from (low-cost) retailers. Another example is a clamp awning (picture 3), a sun protection device for balconies and terraces that is fastened between the floor and a roof or protrusion, also available at low-cost retailers. These affordable solutions are installed without drilling or other construction measures. The products are therefore a good alternative for sunscreens that are often prohibited by landlords or housing corporations due to aesthetical reasons (i.e., sunscreens may decrease the aesthetical value of buildings) or technical limitations (i.e., some locations might be too windy for sunscreens). Moreover, sun sails and clamp awnings can be taken away quickly when there is no sun, or when seniors move to another house. In this way, seniors do not invest in buildings, but in a product that they can take with them.

3. Clamp awning © by ZONZ

The need for simple solutions

Beyond affordable, solutions need to be simple in terms of easy to use and easy to access. However, not all solutions are easy to use. For example, digital apps and other “smart” solutions, such as a “smart beaker” – a cup with sensors and an app that warns when seniors need to drink – are regarded as too complex for seniors who for the most part still have limited digital skills in comparison to younger generations. And due to the limited mobility of seniors, (non-digital) solutions must be easy to use and to access. For instance, we found that for seniors with health problems (e.g., diseases like Multiple Sclerosis) it is difficult to take a cooling vest on and off without assistance.  Furthermore, cooling vests might be difficult to obtain for seniors as they are only available online or in shops targeted to business customers. Simple alternatives are wet towels and cooling scarfs (that have a cooling effect for four to five hours) (picture 4). Both alternatives are easy to obtain and can be put on and taken off relatively easily.

4. Cobber Cool Shawl © Cobber by Vuursteker

A solution that is put in place in The Hague as well as other cities around the world are so-called cooling centres. These are dedicated cooled rooms (i.e., with air conditioning) in (semi)public buildings, such as schools, or libraries. However, will senior citizens really use such spaces? Even if transport was arranged for them, some of our respondents argued that seniors may prefer to stay at home during a heatwave due their limited mobility, and that they are at an increased risk of dehydration if they would undertake the trip to the cooling centre. Seniors now sometimes “flee” their hot apartments and sit in the hallways, leading to noise and other nuisances. Some of our respondents proposed turning their existing common rooms into a cooling centre instead by equipping it with an air conditioning unit.

 

Challenges ahead

So, while we identified a number of frugal solutions, both in the market and developed by the senior citizens themselves, we also observed demand and supply gaps. Especially smaller entrepreneurs we interviewed struggled to identify their “real” customer – should they talk to homeowners, tenants or representatives of individual retirement home and housing corporations, or rather with those working at the “headquarters” of retirement home chains or housing corporations? Indeed, the same type of organisation might have different ownership and organisational structures. For example, retirement homes can be owned by dedicated elderly care organisations, housing corporations or by real estate investors, and they can be managed in a decentralised way (e.g., per building) or centrally (from a headquarters).

 

Another issue is that heat health risks are still underestimated by most people in The Netherlands, partly due to the irregular occurrences of heatwaves and their usually short duration. This makes it hard for entrepreneurs to market their products, especially those products that are relatively new on the Dutch market, such as sun sails, cooling scarfs or clamp awnings. And when heatwaves strike, there is a sudden increase in demand, which entrepreneurs have limited capacity to respond to. Therefore, procurement officers in organisations such as senior housing agencies or elderly care centres would be well advised to view heat preparedness as a strategic priority rather than a short term and reactive solution, and prepare for heatwaves in advance. Public agencies could also create more opportunities for entrepreneurs and the “demand side”, i.e., users or those acting on behalf of users, to meet. Likewise, agencies should not only warn seniors and (informal) caregivers about the risks of heatwaves, but also inform them about frugal solutions that can be used to keep cool. Such actions could literally save lives.



Related links:

The project report can be downloaded by clicking here.

More information on the research project is available on the ISSICFI, as well as THUAS websites.

More information in Dutch is available on the Kennisportaal Klimaatadaptie.



Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

 

Erwin van Tuijl, Postdoctoral Researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) and at the International Centre for Frugal Innovation (ICFI), and visiting researcher and lecturer at the Division of Geography and Tourism, KU Leuven (Belgium).

 

 

 

 

Sylvia I. Bergh, Associate Professor in Development Management and Governance, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), and Senior researcher, Centre of Expertise on Global Governance, The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS).

 

 

 

Ashley Richard Longman, Lecturer, Faculty of Social Sciences, Political Science and Public Administration, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.