In the time since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, it has become apparent that this potentially deadly disease has tested the capacity of governments around the world. While the promise of a vaccine still remains distant, timely policy interventions remain the critical means by which governments are managing (sometimes successfully and other times not) to save lives and to maintain public confidence.
The ability to react on time, mobilize quickly, and then have graceful exit strategies in the face of this pandemic has been a true test of the efficiency of national and subnational institutions. The policy interventions that each country is choosing to adopt is a case study in the making: one that will be studied, and hopefully, serve as a warning for any failure to invest in preventative measures and research infrastructures, in years to come.
Initial comparisons of how various nations are faring during this global crisis clearly demonstrate that effective policy interventions can and have made a difference in controlling the spread of COVID-19 (see for e.g. Financial Times coronavirus tracker led by John Burn-Murdoch(1)).
Similarly, the differing rates at which COVID-19 curves are flattened across the Canadian provinces highlight that some policies have worked better than others (for e.g. CBC Coronavirus Tracker (2)). Although various governmental policies have yet to be scrutinized fully, it is safe to say that for a policy intervention to be effective during a global pandemic, timeliness in response is of utmost importance. More analysis will certainly single out other factors that make some policies more effective than others.
For example, the policy interventions adopted by Singapore and South Korea(3), despite their geographical proximity to the epidemic center gave the respective nations the edge that Italy and Spain, despite having seemingly well-funded and well-functioning health infrastructure, did not have. Similarly, Germany has fared much better in flattening the curve than either France or the United Kingdom.
Another factor that seems to influence the effectiveness of policy interventions is the importance of the concepts of ‘collaboration’ and ‘coordination of efforts’ both globally between countries and locally between provinces/states and federal governments. Clearly, pandemics do not recognize borders. Countries and provincial/state authorities must work collaboratively to alert one another of upcoming threats, adapt to realities, and to explore new opportunities.
Although the full scope of the devastation wrought by COVID-19 has yet to become apparent, thus far, the crisis has shown that the lack of coordination and communication between levels of governments results in mixed messaging and frequent backtracking on major talk-points. The knock-on effect is mass confusion, unnecessary panic and half-hearted civic participation.
At a micro level, it seems municipal and community level coordinated participation is equally critical for effective implementation of policy interventions at a grassroots level. Vietnam, a developing country with limited resources and a large population of 95 million people is a strong example of how the mobilization of municipal and community level participation allowed for effective adoption of central government policies in the remotest villages of Vietnam(4), resulting in zero deaths to date(5) despite sharing 1500 km long border with southern China. When this pandemic passes, there is a reason to examine any correlation between the breakdown of communication and trust between central and sub-national levels of governments and a higher-than-expected death toll in some countries than others.
Yet another building block for the success of policy interventions in the wake of this pandemic is trust in leadership. It seems that public trust in their governments has played a crucial part in convincing them to stay at home, away from large crowds, places of worships, neighborhood parks and enticing beaches, thereby guaranteeing uptake of otherwise intrusive policies. Note that most of South Korea’s policy interventions are voluntary: The citizens of South Korea have complied willingly with immediate mass testing, extensive contact tracing and social distancing measures. There has been little need to implement punitive measures or to restrict civic liberties drastically. Strong top-down interventions can bring a sense of order only when the directives are followed by the masses and integrated appropriately at provincial, municipal and community levels.
Eventually it is not only the death toll, but also the remaining trust citizens have for their governments, which will reflect how successful mitigation strategies were. Any government that overcame coordination barriers, operated transparently, coordinated the expertise of all sectors and levels of governments, employed timely integration of scientific evidence to inform their policies and procedures, and achieved uptake of its policy measures will emerge victorious in overcoming this virus.
The victory will be sweeter if the governments are able to achieve and/or uphold social cohesion among their fellow citizens as the world transitions out of the lockdown phase to confront the true impact of job losses and economic downturn. With an economic crisis looming, COVID-19 is not just a test of short-term policy interventions employed during the critical phase of the pandemic. Clearly, the pandemic is setting out to be a test of long-term policy interventions, the focus of which will most certainly be on reversing the economic down turn. Without a doubt, job losses will put financial pressure that could pitch communities, societies and potentially nations against one another. Maintaining social cohesion, sense of belonging and a sense of collective purpose will be key to achieving community compliance in rough times ahead. All governments will be tested upon this barometer sooner or later.
While no one policy approach will ever work for all, a deep understanding of the sociopolitical landscape will allow the governments to come up with innovative approaches that will work for their circumstances. The hope is that apolitical approaches will be adopted that will maintain a happy balance between ideological viewpoints on health vs. economy.
COVID-19 came at us all hard and fast, with very little in terms of a “silver-lining”. When all is done and dusted, there will be lots that we will have learned collectively. In months and years ahead, each level of government machinery will need to critically evaluate what worked and what could have been done better. Much of that criticism and reflection will come in the form of evaluations and reports analyzing how each government, national and sub-national, and the world at large, managed this crisis.
Brace yourselves: a plethora of reports is on the way!
- Financial Times, Coronavirus tracked: the latest figures as countries fight to contain the pandemic, https://www.ft.com/coronavirus-latest, Retrieved April 30th
- CBC, Tracking the Coronavirus, https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/coronavirustracker/, Retrieved May 4th, 2020.
- Hani, K. Putting public health policies in a context: Lessons learned from Korea’s response to COVID-19. Published in Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) COVID-19 Special Editorials on April 21st 2020, https://sciencepolicy.ca/news/putting-public-health-policies-context-lessons-learned-koreas-response-covid-19, Retrieved April 30th, 2020.
- Dang, T. Communication as an effective strategy to combat COVID-19 : The Case of Vietnam. Published in International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), COVID-19 Commentary on May 4th 2020, http://wordpress.covid.ingsa.org/covidtag/covid-19-commentary/toan-vietnam/, Retrieved May 10th, 2020.
- World Health Organization, Coronavirus Disease, Situation Report 114, Page 14. Published on 13 May 2020, https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200513-covid-19-sitrep-114.pdf?sfvrsn=17ebbbe_4, Retrieved on May 13th, 2020.
Uzma has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroimaging from University of York, UK and BSc Honors in Neuroscience and Linguistics from University of Toronto, Canada. An emerging science policy practitioner, Uzma works as Advisor, Science Strategy at Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Intimately involved at the interface of science and policy, Uzma is passionate about raising the bar for research excellence and improving the training and capacity development of Canadian highly qualified individuals, including graduate students and early career researchers. Uzma is an active member of Canadian Science Policy Community, currently co-chairing the Evaluation Committee of the CSPC. Previously, she has co-chaired the Program Committee and coordinated symposiums on science diplomacy through the CSPC platform.