Rannar Vassiljev: Covid cares not for the prime minister's views

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Rannar Vassiljev (SDE). Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

One of the more important tasks of leaders is to keep in check the human irrationality of themselves and their organization when making decisions. Especially in crisis situations such as the one we have today. This is where the government has made the biggest mistakes under Kaja Kallas' stewardship, Rannar Vassiljev writes.

The government of Kaja Kallas eased COVID-19 restrictions upon taking office in January. Fewer than six weeks later, Estonia has been steered into a critical situation where the same government has no choice but to declare a virtual lockdown.

The prime minister's reasoning that the so-called British strain of the virus is to blame is less than convincing as an Estonian was first discovered to be carrying it back in early January. The reasons for these fatal management mistakes rather lie in the rulers' ideology and intuition-based decision-making.

Social Democrat Sanna Marin declared a national emergency in Finland when the country had fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 residents. Liberal Prime Minister Kaja Kallas eased measures in the worst-hit regions when the case rate exceeded 500 per 100,000 people in Estonia.

While one might say that liberals are more allergic to all manner of state rules than social democrats, unfortunately, the coronavirus cares not for the ideology of prime ministers and spreads based on its own set of rules.

When in charge of running a society, one needs to tell the difference between situations where decisions can depend on politicians' idea of the world and what they believe in and those where calls need to be knowledge-based as opposed to ideological. The coronavirus crisis is a clear example of the latter.

The virus cannot be convinced to spread differently in Estonia than it does in Finland because our PM is from the Reform Party and therefore sports a different view. This is evidenced in the fact that Estonia's COVID-19 case rate is ten times that of Finland as a result of past mistakes.

Psychologist Seymour Epstein separated the way humans process information and make decisions into two parts: intuitive-experimental and analytical-rational thinking. The former is based on past experience, intuition and emotions and takes place rapidly and often imperceptibly. The main problem with it is its susceptibility to all manner of human irrationality.

Analytical-rational thinking on the other hand is slow and strenuous but makes it possible, as its name suggests, to make rational decisions by analyzing necessary information. Both have a place in management as in other walks of life.

The intuitive-experimental state of mind is useful when brainstorming or when rapid decisions are needed. While analytical-rational thinking should be preferred when decisions matter and there is little margin for error.

One of the more important tasks of leaders is to keep in check the human irrationality of themselves and their organization when making decisions. Especially in crisis situations such as the one we have today. This is where the government has made the biggest mistakes under Kaja Kallas' stewardship.

The Reform Party was critical of restrictive measures when it was still in the opposition, which made perfect sense from the ideological point of view. But that ideology stayed put when the party formed the new government and continued on the same intuitive-experimental path it had sold itself and others on. In other words, easing measures despite what was already a sky-high case rate.

This quickly backfired and forced the government to lay down new restrictions. However, a lot of damage had already been done and control over the situation lost following a decision based on ideology and intuition.

But that was not the end of irrational decisions. "Present bias" is attaching too much significance to the moment at hand and overemphasizing current events often at the expense of the future. It is only human and very commonplace when making decisions in the intuitive-experimental style.

That is what the government has done in the crisis, trying to postpone unpleasant decisions (necessary measures) that could hurt the leading party's popularity. This has only pushed Estonia deeper into the crisis and caused problems to mount.

There are some situations where management mistakes cannot be afforded or used as a learning opportunity. The government cannot make intuitive and ideological decisions in the coronavirus crisis. Even though the prevalence of the virus also depends on human behavior, knowledge-based analytical-rational decision-making is possible. That is why we have turned to scientists.

Kaja Kallas and the government, listen more to scientists and less to your personal worldview and intuition moving forward. And when scientists make their proposals, make sure you decide then and not a week or even several weeks later.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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