This think piece was written on the first day of Singapore’s circuit breaker, 6th April 2020, by a graduate student in public policy.
Suppose that you are trying to do an assignment. You are uncertain about whether doing the readings will help with the assignment. We assume that prior to this decision, there is no proven correlation between doing the readings and your grade.
Nonetheless, you decide to do the readings, even though you are uncertain whether they would help. Eventually, you got a good grade for the assignment. You pat yourself on the back, thinking that your good grade justifies the time you spent doing the readings. You then conclude that if you had not done the readings, you would not have done well for your assignment. Alternatively, if you did badly, you regret and think that you should not have wasted your time doing the readings.
There is some discomfort with the reasoning here. This is not anything new. It is uncertain if we should use the outcome to justify/criticise a decision that was made in the past, especially if there is no guarantee that this decision would necessarily lead to a specific outcome.
On the same note, there is no guarantee that should you have chosen the alternative option, you will definitely arrive at the other outcome. (For simplicity, assume two options and two possible outcomes).
Therefore, statements like “the government should not have discouraged people from wearing masks, even if they are not ill” or “the government should have implemented the current stringent measures earlier” need to be evaluated at the time when the decision was made, not in retrospect when we have already witnessed the outcomes.
However, there is also an issue here. This line of reasoning – against making judgements in retrospect – also seems to imply that the decision-maker is absolved of culpability if the outcome turns out to be bad— since the decision was made with uncertainty, we should not blame the decision-maker for the outcome.
This implication sounds uncomfortable too. Who should bear responsibility then? I do not have a concrete answer here, but perhaps we can consider the differences between (i) making an active decision whose outcome is uncertain, (ii) making an active decision that has a high probability of achieving an outcome, and (iii) passively doing nothing.
With regards to the COVID-19 migrant worker dormitory clusters, there was inaction on the part of the government and the employers, in terms of improving the workers’ living conditions and providing adequate space. Should the government and employers therefore bear responsibility for their inaction – in terms of not doing much to improve these living conditions before the pandemic – which resulted in a potentially big cluster?
Some relevant links: Managing the coronavirus crisis: drawing the right lessons, Circuit breaker resources, Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics’ (HOME’s) Fundraiser, Preetipls x UTOPIA for Migrant Workers NGOs [Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and HealthServe Ltd]
Feature image by Behance’s Artists