When I first heard about the virus which turned out to become the corona pandemic, in late January or early February 2020, I thought it was an exaggeration rather than something to worry about. The diplomat who told me disagreed, saying it was going to be bad. Unfortunately, he was right. Had others been as sceptical and sounded the alarm earlier, the epidemic might not have happened. But even the experts in the World Health Organisation (WHO) were reluctant to sound the full alarm; it was not until March 11, 2020 they termed it a pandemic. Many heads of government, ministers, and heads of public health institutes were also slow in realising the seriousness in many countries, including small and big industrialised countries, such as in Scandinavia, the UK, US, Russia, Brazil, and others who ought to have known better.

In my home country, Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg only realised that the pandemic was dramatic a day or two before she was advised by the health authorities to close down the country on March 12, 2020. On paper it was not her who actually took the decision, but the head of the directorate of health under the emergency epidemics law. Later, the PM took the steering and was absolutely in the driver’s seat, and she did very well, like the other female heads of government in the Nordic countries.

Sweden, with the only male PM, Stefan Löfven, has had more fatalities than the neighbouring countries; over 5,560 in a population of about ten million; Norway has a modest number of less than 260 in a population of close to 5.5 million, but the rate could shoot up in possible future contagion waves. Yet, in Sweden the failure to protect the people better thus far should not be blamed on the PM’s leadership only, but rather on the sector ministers, health and security experts, and bureaucrats at central, regional and local levels. Maybe they all followed the theories and manuals too accurately, as Swedish bureaucrats and practical scientists normally do.

The technocratic and meritocratic society seems to have developed further in Sweden than in most other countries. That does not mean, however, that people are not involved in political and other debates; 87 percent voted at last general elections in September 2018. Politicians and others who debate issues must be well informed about facts and figures and base arguments accordingly. Ideology and more general opinions play a less important role. In the time we live in, in our knowledge societies, where we often don’t only demand knowledge, but research-based knowledge and empirical proof.

In the USA, especially now during Donald Trump’s presidency, it seems that facts and figures play a less prominent role. To some extent, politicians have always interpreted facts and figures in their own way and to their own favour. We should also know that scientists and experts have much power in formulating questions and defining issues to be studied, and in drawing conclusions, setting the agenda for politicians and others. Earlier, the term counter-expertise was more used than today, but even today, interest organizations play a prominent role. For example, if politicians want to discuss environmental issues, global warming and climate change, interest organisations may have more data and arguments than the researchers and politicians, being able to corner them in debates if they haven’t done their homework well enough. Often, politicians are expected to know much about specialised issues, too, becoming sector-politicians and close to experts themselves rather than the overall generalist politicians they are meant to be.

I believe that the ongoing corona pandemic, which is a serious challenge for politicians everywhere, has shown that our societies need more and better of the things we have: 1. Better research institutes and knowledge, including mainstream and alternative ones. 2. Better civil service, interest and civil society and organisations, including the private sector. 3. Better political structures and democratic people’s participation.

The reason why it took quite some time for us all to realise the seriousness of the corona pandemic, had to do with everyone believing that the institutions we have built will take care of things; we thought we relax because others would look after things. But we have seen that was not quite the case, not even in the most advanced and well-governed countries, with highly educated, orderly and participatory citizens.

We have begun to realise that we must be much more inquisitive about the ways we organise our societies and the structures we build, costing a lot of money, but not always performing as they should. We haven’t really focused on alternative thinking, encouraging new and radical ideas to be tested so that better institutions can be established. For example, why are ministries of defence almost entirely focusing on military issues, but not on epidemics, climate change and other disasters? Why are ministries of health not focusing more on social and mental health issues? Why are ministries of finance not focusing more on creating equality for people, which leads to higher productivity, and on fulfilling basic needs requirements for all citizens?

We certainly need experts, but the corona crisis has taught us that politicians are more important than we may have thought, as we like to criticise them, too. We now realise that we cannot let experts and bureaucrats rule; in democracies that is for politicians to do. In many ways, the crisis has taught us that when all kinds of technical and scientific knowledge, facts and figures have been presented, and the medical and financial experts have spoken, then it is time for the politicians to consider issues and use their common sense. I believe those countries which based decisions on what the experts and bureaucrats recommended, but drew their own final conclusions, have done best. Politicians may have had to overrule their advisers and sector experts to find broad and balanced solutions that are good for all.

In future, many evaluation reports about the handling of the corona crisis will appear. Sweden has already appointed a commission to evaluate its policies. Maybe one conclusion will be that the PM and the other politicians did not play their leadership roles forcefully enough. In other countries, including Norway, the politicians may have overstepped their rights, passing too many extraordinary emergency laws and rules for quick decisions. But was it really democratic? Also, there should probably have been more participation from people from outside the cabinet and parliament.

And then, to be better prepared for the next epidemics and pandemics, it is the politicians’ responsibility to involve people to participate, and indeed to develop frameworks for better work by experts and bureaucrats. There is no time to lose because new viruses are coming any time, experts say, and the next pandemics may be even more terrible than corona and COVID-19, Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (FHI), has said. Next time, we must be better prepared than we were this time. It is our politicians that must coordinate it all, in a revival time for that profession in democracies—together with experts and bureaucrats.