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CG BLOG – Paul Dolan: Why I joined Collateral Global

“It’s beyond me why there haven’t been rigorous attempts to think about how these policies might affect some of the outcomes that we sensibly care about.”

When we drop a pebble in the pond, we often look at its initial splash. We do not pay too much attention to its ripple effects. In measuring the impact of policies that have been put in place in response to the pandemic, we have looked at the splash of virus transmission rates, hospitalisations, and deaths. We have largely ignored the ripple effects, such as when people didn’t get checked for cancers by staying at home.

The misdiagnosis of cancer is an obvious and immediate effect. Then take the closure of schools: there is an assumption that we will get over that, and we can always make up for the lost schooling. But schooling isn’t just about education. It’s an experience for children, including social development and social interaction. For some kids, it’s the only place where they get care, attention, and a decent meal, and teachers can notice if there are any problems at home.

These policies will have long-term harms. Significantly, tens of thousands of children have literally gone missing from school in the last 18 months. It’s not that they have middle-class parents who are helping them learn from home rather than go back to school. They’ve gone missing. Many will end up in gangs, or on the streets, and their lives are going to turn out badly. We have had a direct effect on making their lives worse.

Experts on virus transmission were making decisions about when to close schools and for how long. But that’s not just an epidemiological question; it’s a health, economic, and social question for which there ought to be more voices and more data.

We’ve dropped the biggest pebble of policy ever into the pond using mandated non-pharmaceutical interventions and lockdowns, and we have only looked at the splash. But there are significant ripple effects that could turn into tidal waves, and we haven’t bothered to look at them.

One of the things that’s angered me over this past 18 months is how little regard has been paid to people’s life experiences, and to addressing poor mental health and loneliness. If you were to rank all the main determinants of life expectancy, top of the list, right up there with smoking, is loneliness. What we have done for the best part of a year or more is force people to be lonely.

It’s beyond me why there haven’t been rigorous attempts to think about how these policies might affect some of the outcomes that we sensibly care about, like life expectancies and life experiences. If you think about the daily data that is reported – transmission rates, hospitalisations and deaths – we haven’t been given any context to the data. Why haven’t we been told about how much life expectancy has been shortened by?

It has frustrated and angered me that we haven’t been able to have a grown-up conversation about the fundamentals of the human condition, which are social interaction, the mental well-being of our population and fun, enjoyment, and spontaneity too. These are all the things that have been taken away from all of us but have been most acutely felt by children and young people, who are least at risk from the virus.

We have faced an unprecedented crisis – a word that’s been used time and time again. So, if it’s unprecedented, you’d expect there to be a considerable degree of uncertainty and disagreement about the appropriate responses. You’d expect academics to look at evidence and to be circumspect. I’m certain I have spent the last 18 months being uncertain about most things. So I have found the enormous degree of consensus about what we ought to do a real surprise. There has been so much groupthink. It worries me that the academic community has been by and large either very supportive of lockdown measures or silent about them.

One of the things we need to do is to bring together different disciplinary perspectives, different frames of reference, and different experiences to look at the full effects of the pandemic and the policy responses to it. Collateral Global (CG) offers us the opportunity for the whole to be more than the sum of its parts and to have a stronger voice collectively than we might have individually. What CG can do is ensure that we deal with a future crisis by including more perspectives, opinions, expertise and data.

Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science at London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the best-selling author of Happiness by Design and Happy Ever After, and the host of the new Duck-Rabbit

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