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Prohibition Era Thinking is Back … and Messing Up Pandemic Policy Responses

Much of my professional life revolves around work related to liquor policy and regulation. Because of this, I am intimately familiar with the policy rationales and approaches that created Prohibition about a hundred years ago … and which also led to its well-chronicled failure. One might think that Prohibition and the Covid pandemic have little in common. However, I am increasingly coming to think that they do … and that our collective failure to learn from the history of Prohibition is causing society to make similar mistakes in our responses to the pandemic, particularly at this later stage.


Let me explain. Prohibition was implemented in order to deal with societal problems that stemmed from the over-consumption of alcohol. It was recognized that some people drank too much and that this resulted in harm to family life, social life and work. At the time, some governments (mostly in North America) determined that the most appropriate policy response to this issue was to ban the sale of alcohol to everyone. 


Some refer to this as a “noble experiment”. While there may have been good intentions on the part of the proponents, it is now universally recognized that the effort was a colossal mistake which resulted in significant economic damage to the hospitality industry, a massive disruption to social life, and widespread non-compliance with laws that were viewed as unfair and inequitable by many who had consumed alcohol in moderation for years without issue. Due to inequitable enforcement of the laws, there was significant reputational damage to the justice system. 


The root of the problem was the mismatch of the policy response to the nature of the problem. A minority of people had a problem with alcohol consumption … but government responded by banning the sale of alcohol to everyone which was both an “over-reaching” response (i.e. affecting far more people than those who actually had a problem) and a “nanny state” approach wherein the state decides what is good for you rather than letting you decide for yourself. Indeed, many would argue that it made the problem worse for those with addiction issues … since they continued to drink illegally, often at greater expense and with unregulated and unsafe products.


While there are some obvious differences between alcohol-related problems and an infectious disease, I am worried that our societal response to Covid has become tainted by similar thinking. At the beginning of the pandemic, we didn’t understand the nature of the threat. Back then, it was justifiable to create broad sweeping restrictions to try and stop the problem while we figured out exactly what we were dealing with. But two years into this, we now know infinitely more about the nature of the problem and the risks to people. Effective policy responses should target the problem and not create unnecessary collateral damage that will damage society and harm our quality of life.


We now know that the risks posed by Covid are dramatically weighted toward certain age groups. Like it not, this is a discriminatory virus that threatens some demographics much more than others. In addition, vaccination has miraculously transformed the nature of the threat and the attendant risks for nearly all groups. Indeed, the New York Times recently reported on a detailed British study (in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal) which concluded that the risks for fully vaccinated people under the age of 65 are now less than those posed by influenza. As such, the nature of the problem has changed significantly during the past two years.


Many governments, businesses and organizations seem to be having trouble creating measured responses that both recognize and target the present risks related to Covid while minimizing unnecessary collateral damage. Sometimes the balance between these two measures is so off kilter that ‘the cure may have become worse than the disease’. It seems to me that a new approach to pandemic era policy making may be needed which is informed by our historical experience with liquor policy making. For example, wouldn’t it make more sense to learn from the past and consider the following.


Make Sure That the Policy Response Accurately Targets the Problem. Governments, organizations and businesses should not create over-reaching responses that fail to hit the target (as they did during Prohibition). For example, a federal Canadian “global travel advisory” on Covid recommends that Canadians avoid all travel, everywhere in the world without taking into account the prevalence of Covid at the destination, the means of travel, or the individual circumstances of the traveler, all of which are directly relevant to whether or not there is, indeed, any real and appreciable risk to either the traveler or to Canada upon that individual’s return. This policy is both over-reaching and reflective of a “nanny-state” mentality. Many businesses and organizations have similar policies.


React to Changed Circumstances. During Prohibition, governments stayed the course even when it became clear that the ‘solution’ was producing little positive results and lots of negative ones. Effective policy responses to the pandemic also require critical thinking and nimble reaction times. If it has become clear that the risks related to Covid have changed then governments and organizations should adjust policy responses accordingly. For example, any consideration of moving school or university on-line should recognize that there is little to no appreciable risk (in terms of serious illness or death) for younger age groups.


Do Not Automatically Revert to or Continue Earlier Responses. Throughout Prohibition, successive governments simply ‘inherited’ the (failing) policy response and continued with it. Effective crisis management requires constantly re-thinking our responses and adapting them. Many governments and organizations are not doing this. For example, the government of Quebec just re-introduced a province-wide curfew, a measure that virtually ensures indoor socialization while limiting people from congregating outdoors where it is safer. Have we not learned from the early stages of the pandemic that this did not work and likely made things worse? 


Question Policy Responses Based on Ideology or Dogma. Initial policy responses will often be based on an assessment of what works and a strident commitment to doing that despite predictable opposition. Sometimes this is helpful in the early days as it makes it clear to the public or your customers where your government or organization stands. However, it’s important to realize that in the face of rapidly changing science or societal effects, you can be proven to be wrong. If you’re wrong, it’s important to come clean and admit it. You will lose trust if you doggedly pursue a policy response once everyone else realizes that it makes no sense. This happened during Prohibition … and is starting to happen again for certain pandemic responses. For example, here in my home province of BC, our (mostly sensible) provincial health officer adopted a determined position against rapid testing early in the pandemic which continued until about a week ago. A recent swamping of the BC testing system by Omicron cases forced the government to replace (the previously unassailable) PCR tests with (the previously questionable) rapid tests. The about-face would have looked better if it included an acknowledgement of earlier error.


Do As I Say Not As I Do. During Prohibition, there were many examples of authority figures breaking the rules, or even profiting from them. Here in BC, the Prohibition Commissioner was arrested for bootlegging. We have already seen this happening throughout the pandemic with numerous politicians and business leaders. It’s important to create policies and rules that everyone can reasonably follow, including the rule makers. It is disastrous to create unworkable policies that no one respects and everyone dodges.


I am optimistic that society will get a handle on the pandemic in 2022 and that things will improve significantly. However, just like the post-Prohibition period in North America, there is a real danger that governments and businesses may prolong the societal pain and disruption if they do not change the nature of their policy responses and act more quickly to changing circumstances and reduced risks. Here in BC, it took almost 100 years following the repeal of Prohibition for restaurants to be allowed to have a “happy hour”. Hopefully, that is not an indicator of how long we’ll be forced to endure pandemic related travel restrictions. I used to love flying!