By Mark Jarratt, Certified Protection Professional and Licensed Security Risk Analyst
Risk is not a vague unknown: strong science-based methodology exists to assess and manage risk.
In relation to the virus crisis, analysing risk, selecting risk responses and disciplined management based on the global ISO31000:2018 standard should apply in deciding any public health countermeasures to mitigate COVID-19 consequences…as it should to any risk.
Australia’s current approaches could be improved by a more rational and analytical approach. Basing decisions on an “abundance of caution”, fear, and worst-case scenario speculation relies on risk aversion, not risk management.
To manage risk appropriately, it must first be accurately assessed. Detailed risk analysis requires collecting data about threats, hazards, opportunities, and vulnerability. Analysing threat, potential infection and mortality rates, and related epidemiological data can be complicated, because there is always extraneous information or “noise”.
The “noise” must be excluded to concentrate on useful and reliable data to mitigate or treat the COVID-19 risk environment. Undertaking risk analysis can be complex but that is no excuse to ignore it.
Risk is the effect of uncertainty on objectives, where:
- An effect is a deviation from the expected, whether negative or positive;
- Objectives can have different aspects (e.g. medical, social, legal, financial, economic, personal, psychological, environmental) and apply at different levels (global, national, strategic, enterprise wide, product, project, individual);
- Objectives can be classified with reference to potential events and consequences, and a combination of these; and,
- Risk is often expressed as a combination of event consequences and the associated likelihood of the risk event or incidents occurring.
For risk to exist there must be a likelihood that some negative outcome will occur (excepting speculative financial risk such as gambling or stock market trading, where a positive outcome is possible).
Risk, like the future, is always uncertain
Likelihood is never certain, because “risk” refers to future events. Therefore, when dealing with risk, uncertainty is ubiquitous. For that very reason, it is important to apply structured, rational and defensible methodology, justifying the selection of countermeasures and resources dedicated to mitigating the assessed expected risks.
Determining risk countermeasures or treatments without first conducting risk analysis creates another major risk: the treatments will be costly, ineffective, misdirected, and/or will not mitigate the genuine risks.
When selecting risk treatments, the greatest emphasis should be on reducing or mitigating risks to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP) based on a defensible cost/benefit ratio, given resource limitations.
A defensible risk management posture to mitigate COVID-19 consequences would result from applying the ALARP concept, often used in regulation and management of safety-critical and safety-involved systems.
The only means of reducing risk to zero is not to perform the activity (e.g. the road toll would be reduced to zero by banning driving…but would that be acceptable?).
How will ‘success be defined?
What level of risk (i.e. infection, mortality) is acceptable, and how will “success” be defined? Without such parameters, the end point cannot be specified.
ALARP revolves around practicality: can anything be done about the risk at a cost that is less than the benefits achieved? The ALARP concept can also be described as the point when the trade-off between cost and benefit has reached its optimal value in terms of reward for resources expended.
That point appears to have already passed, with governments competing to introduce daily ever-expanding economically and socially damaging “risk treatments” of dubious legality and effectiveness, based on fear, worst case scenario speculation and unreliable data.
For example, no illness or potential illness justifies suspending democracy by ignoring the Australian Parliament, and introducing an entire new structure of national management, literally overnight, which has no foundation in the Australian Constitution or precedent for managing the nation. Parliament is actually elected to do just that.
When risk reaches intolerable levels, the expectation is that risk will be reduced unless the cost of reducing the risk is grossly disproportionate to benefits gained by accepting that risk.
Where risks are close to negligible, action might only be taken to reduce risk where benefits exceed the costs of reduction.
Although acceptable risk thresholds vary with different activities, risks should be treated such that residual risks are as low as reasonably practicable.
Ultimately, Australian Commonwealth, State and Territory governments are responsible for determining the level of tolerable COVID-19 medical risk, and the justifiable combination of countermeasures. Evidence that governments have applied rational risk analysis is currently conspicuously absent.
In applying the ALARP principle to COVID-19, Australian governments should treat risks to the point where the cost of further treatment is excessive, compared with the resulting value or opportunity realised through further risk reduction.
Improved objective analysis based on established risk management principles and reliable data is more likely to be effective against COVID-19 than the current piecemeal and catastrophising “doomsday is here” approach.
New risk emerges after crisis period
The major current risk is not COVID-19, it is the self-destructive official and social reaction.
Beyond the virus crisis period a different type of fraught ‘risk’ will arise that must be assessed.
There’s an obvious risk that politicians will or are become so used to governing by ‘Magic Pudding’ economics that those currently in charge will never be able to return to traditional fiscal discipline, using long established legal budgetary processes.
There is an equal risk that authoritarian crackdowns with ‘instant-noodle’ restrictions on freedoms and liberties will become the preferred model of ruling for elites and their army of overzealous enforcers.
These are real risks that Australians cannot allow to become entrenched. We must be vigilant and fight to ensure that all our rights are restored when the virus crisis is determined to be over.
Mark Jarratt is a former Director of CLA. The views expressed are his own.
If you would like to get involved, you can join Civil Liberties Australia here: https://www.cla.asn.au/News/join-renew-donate/ Alternatively, or as well, write, email or phone your federal and state or territory Member of Parliament to let them know what you think. Whatever you do, please get active: apathy is one of the greatest risks of all.