Pandemic management has lessons for ag marketing


Sometimes risk analysis and risk management are literally life-and-death matters.

That’s the situation with COVID-19 management. Public health officials are making decisions that help determine how many people get sick, die, lose jobs, fall behind in education, despair, go bankrupt, and a host of other impacts of the pandemic.

For farmers, there is much to be learned about risk management from how the pandemic is being managed. This health and economic crisis is similar to both sports and war in providing stark metaphors. In sports you win, lose or draw. The results are pretty clear — much clearer than in farming.

In war you live or die, win or lose, or end up with a result that even if not simple, is able to be comprehended. Things blow up. People die. Some hold victory parades.

There are great lessons to be learned about risk management from this current crisis. Here are some I think farmers could benefit from:

Real-world risk management isn’t easy

It’s easy for some to say everything should be locked down until there are no COVID-19 cases. That’s especially easy if you have a safe job or business that will continue regardless of the lockdown, and others will bear the cost.

It’s also easy to say everything should stay open and the virus should be allowed to pass through our society “naturally.” It’s especially easy to say that if your job or business is imperilled by a lockdown.

Public health officials are caught in the situation, familiar to farmers, of trying to balance multiple competing and contradictory risks, all of which are costly to control and some of which can only be minimized by increasing the risk of others. There are many imperfect choices.

Real-world risk management is a balancing act, not a magic formula, and it has to be adapted as needed.

Some people have trouble assessing relative risks

Anti-vaxxers don’t believe in vaccination, so their avoidance of being vaccinated is rational on that basis, if crazy in reality.

But thousands of people are avoiding a couple of the vaccines because of a fear of blood clots that appear to have a very low frequency. The risk from COVID-19 is much, much greater.

Millions of people have no problem assessing the two risks and rolling up their sleeves to get those jabs, but a subset can’t get over the mental image of a vaccine-induced blood clot. They are waiting for weeks longer to get vaccinated, despite living in virus hotspots like Winnipeg, because of that mental image trumping anything like rational risk analysis.

What kind of mental blocks, phobias and neuroses are we subject to that cause us to make irrational and unjustifiable decisions with our lives, farms and businesses?

Rather than smirk and laugh at the people making crazy COVID decisions today, we should be using their examples as wake-up calls to us to re-check our own behaviour in non-COVID areas in which we might be acting similarly irrational.

We all have blind spots. Let’s use COVID-19 as a chance to “see” ours.

The power of denial and defiance are profound

Some people just don’t want to believe COVID-19 is a serious threat. They really, really don’t want to believe that.

So, they don’t.

Most of them will be OK. Most won’t be infected. If they are, most will be lucky enough to not get seriously ill, die, or develop debilitating long-COVID.

They’ll probably be fortunate enough to not infect their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts or friends, or if they do, not end up seeing them die as a result.

But some will end up dying, infecting vulnerable family members, or spreading the virus through their communities.

Like with not buying insurance, or not wearing a seat belt, or smoking, you’ll probably get lucky and not die from that decision.

Is that how you should be operating your farm, your family business, your life? Ask your spouse about that.

In your farm, what huge but unlikely risk have you avoided dealing with? That’s worth thinking about.

Trying to control the ‘narrative’ is dangerous

Governments often don’t like to deal with uncomfortable realities. Companies don’t either. Nor do churches, school parent councils or sports clubs.

We’ve seen that with this pandemic. Here in Manitoba the government has refused to share its modelling and projections of COVID-19 outbreaks, even as each wave has brought grave concerns to the public.

The lack of clarity has caused uncertainty that makes it hard for citizens to assess their own risks and made it hard for people to know what’s really going on. An attitude of “just do what we say” and “just trust us” doesn’t allow anybody to proactively manage their own risk, or have confidence in those doing it for them.

When COVID infection numbers exploded in Manitoba last week, the public was shocked. Was this expected? How does it change the outlook? How should be respond in light of the news?

Unfortunately, without knowing the previous assumptions, citizens were left with just parsing the comments of public health officials to try to figure out if they were surprised, if they thought a wholesale change in approach was needed, if they had been wrong.

We’re all part of the narrative and nobody’s in control of it.

Don’t trust authorities to act too proactively

Louis St. Laurent, a post-war prime minister of Canada, was said to suffer from guiding the country away from problems before they blew up into crises.

For that he got no credit, and didn’t last long as PM.

Most politicians realize that and don’t get too far ahead of crises if heading them off would mean too much of a cost or incur unpopularity.

With COVID we’ve seen most governments act far too slowly to snuff out outbreaks. The cynic in me sees that as a preference for solving a preventable crisis rather than avoiding one in the first place, an approach most of us in the public tend to reward, it’s sad to say.

That means when it comes to managing your risk, you’d better not be counting on governments or other authorities to be looking out for your best interests. They’d probably prefer to be thanked for pulling you out of the muck than annoying you by getting in the way to keep you out of it.

And if some face catastrophe due to that reactive approach, that’s just the cost of doing politics and public policy.

For farms, it’s safe to say nobody is going to look out for farmers as much as the farmer. Large proportions of the farm population used to rely upon the government to bail them out of problems, but most of those farmers are out of the business, some due to the decisions based on that false assumption. Often the help comes too late, or doesn’t come at all.

After this crisis it might be good to realize that in the end, your risk is yours, and nobody is going to care about it half as much as you do.