Several layers of imperfect measures can offer more comprehensive protection

Swiss cheese is suddenly relevant again.

It’s a stinky substance that is just as relevant to COVID-19 control as it is to agricultural risk management.

No, the cheese doesn’t fight the virus itself, although that’s the kind of thing United States President Donald Trump might believe.

It’s a metaphor for the way risk management can be achieved by the combination of a number of flawed risk control measures.

Specifically, if you use one slice of Swiss cheese to try to stop something yucky moving forward, some is going to get through because Swiss cheese is riddled with holes.

But if you put another slice behind the first slice, most of those holes on the first slice will be covered, and less undesirable stuff will get through the second set of holes. If you add a third slice, even less will get through. And so on.

In the end, an almost complete barrier can be achieved by using nothing but a substance with big holes in it.

This metaphor is being talked about with COVID-19 because there are no 100 percent effective solutions to the virus now, and maybe there never will be. Masks don’t provide 100 percent protection. Nor do hand-washing, social-distancing or capacity constraints on bars, restaurants, stores and malls. Sporadic lockdowns don’t offer a magic bullet solution because some cases will always manage to remain uncontrolled and spread.

But by combining all of those measures, almost complete control can be achieved. Just look at Brandon and southwestern Manitoba, where a big wave of COVID-19 in the summer was flattened by the above measures.

It was a stunning success.

It’s no different with agricultural risk management. There is no single perfect way to eliminate the risk to a farm. Every tool, every mechanism, every protocol and practice has its flaws, its yawning holes.

But by taking a comprehensive approach, combining multiple modes of risk protection action, farms can eliminate much of the risk they face.

Writing this, it seems obvious and self-explanatory. But I notice with COVID-19, every day, people criticizing masks, social distancing, capacity constraints and lockdowns. Usually, the complaint is that various measures aren’t effective, or that they are not effective enough to make a difference.

But, as in agricultural risk management, that’s not the point. It’s the comprehensiveness of the risk management measures that makes the difference.

On Nov. 13, I listened to Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Brent Roussin, lay out time and again the basic measures of pandemic control and self-protection.

If everybody just did what he said, COVID-19 would collapse, I realized. It’s so simple.

But some won’t heed his words, or not be strong enough to undertake the self-discipline required to adhere to the measures, and some for various reasons won’t be able to follow everything always.

And that will let the virus flare up again, some way down the road.

Farmers are much advanced on the risk management evolutionary ladder, having survived multiple pandemic-like shocks over the years, whether from production or price problems.

They intuitively get the Swiss cheese approach to risk management.

But it’s always a good time to look over an operation and figure out how many slices of cheese are being put in the way of danger, and how many little gaps still appear at the end, where the farmer stands.

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