J. Benjamin Hurlbut,
Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, Cornell University, Arizona State University
Released as part of the Futures Forum for Preparedness
Grounded in the field of Science & Technology Studies, and incorporating interdisciplinary expertise from law, public policy, and the social sciences, teams at Harvard and Cornell universities studied the COVID-19 response across 18 countries.
Australia, Austria, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Peru, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, United Kingdom, United States
Pre-Existing Conditions: Underlying societal conditions have significantly affected countries’ abilities to respond to COVID-19. In particular, the virus found and revealed three “pre-existing conditions,” or structural weaknesses in each system that obstructed effective policy response: 1) weak or decentralized public health infrastructure, including data collection; 2) economic inequality; 3) political alienation and lack of trust in government. In contrast, in countries that had effective policies in place in response to prior public health emergency experiences, the result was as if antibodies were activated to help fight off a new infection faster and in more targeted ways.
Social Compact: The social compact matters. Countries with traditions of acting in concert against social problems and countries with histories of deference to public authorities fared better on compliance than countries lacking either or both.
Public Health Policy: Broad lessons are emerging from the comparative study about ways in which public health policies must change to produce better integrated global responses across highly divergent health, economic, and political systems. Politics did not not take a backseat to policy during the pandemic. Future policy guidance from national and global institutions must account for the ways in which political divisions and biases will impact implementation and compliance.
Economic Impact: Job protections, rather than unemployment assistance, most effectively reduced economic dislocation during the pandemic, at least in the short-term.
Multilateral Coordination: The pandemic made clear the need for integrated, international institutions. Looking ahead, individual national approaches without global coordination will not be effective at containing a future health emergency, and international collaboration is needed to ensure effective measurement, capacity-building, and sharing of best practices.