Populist politicians love to belittle experts, but when it’s a matter of life and death, the precautionary principle and expertise are what counts.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage parts of the world, the blame game is already well underway to pinpoint why it wasn’t better contained. Throughout 2020 and up to the present day, hardly a single aspect of the pandemic response—whether mask wearing, lockdowns, vaccine production, or school openings—has been free from politicization. Among the public and experts, debates have swirled around who made the most accurate guesses about the number of COVID-19 casualties or its impact on the stock market.
Meanwhile, scientists at the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) were mapping viral proteins, Operation Warp Speed was disbursing funds to biotech companies to ramp up vaccine development, and a wide global public-private coalition was launching COVAX to ensure vaccine distribution to poorer nations. Other than NIAID director Anthony Fauci, few of those involved would be recognized by any member of the public or chattering class. But if and when COVID-19 is finally eradicated, we’ll have these technocrats to thank.
In Asia, they already do. From Taiwan to South Korea to Singapore, doctors, engineers, and other professionals occupy the top rungs of elected office and functional agencies. In these countries, public administration is a vocation, and revolving doors between corporate and political life are minimal. Transparency is high and corruption is low. What differentiates all three Asian states—and others with ultra-low COVID-19 death rates—is they are highly technocratic.
In technocracies, competence, public spirit, and key performance indicators are more important than cults of personality or popularity contests. Populist dilettantes such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former U.S. President Donald Trump mocked the experts on everything from Brexit to China tariffs to COVID-19, sacrificing public welfare for political gain. Their megalomaniacal hijacking of the state in times of crisis serves as a stark reminder that when it’s a matter of life and death, we’d better trust the technocrats.