Mapping the governance of the Covid-19 response

Appropriate measures are crucial to combat Covid-19, how they are taken and enacted –by whom, using which evidence-base and which institutions – is also fundamental. It determines the durability of the responses and the shape of future societies. We are launching a new collaborative project to map and document the governance of the Covid-19 reactions around the world.

By Jean-Benoit Falisse, Boel McAteer Türkmenoğlu and Léonard Ntakarutimana

Hosier Lane, Melbourne VIC, Australia - Rest in Peace Posters of Dr Li Wenliang, who warned authorities about the coronovirus outbreak seen at Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia.
© Adli Wahid (@adliwahid)

The Covid-19 pandemic and the public health response to it are radically disrupting the lives of many. So far, the media, policymakers, and researchers have mostly (and rightly so) focused their attention on two key dimensions: (1) what governments and health systems are doing and whether these measures are appropriate; and (2) the development of a new arsenal of treatments, vaccines, and tests to fight the virus. What has been less discussed so far is the governance of the preparedness and response – the organisation of collective action by governments, but also by civil society and private actors.

Three weeks ago, we launched a new research project to document the governance of the Covid-19 response around the world. Understanding who is involved in collective action to tackle Covid-19, how decisions are taken, based on which evidence, and using which legal and social tools is crucial for at least two core reasons.

Firstly, the sustainability and efficiency of public health and societal responses to health emergencies are highly influenced by the manner in which decisions are made and communicated, and who makes them.

For example, in April health experts in Turkey recommended the government to put weekend curfews in place. The government then announced a curfew just a few hours before it was due to begin, which created crowds that the same experts deemed more dangerous than no curfew at all. How can people abide by stringent new rules if their rationale is not clear to decision-makers themselves, or to the public?

Another example comes from Rajan and colleagues (2020)’s new paper on Covid-19 taskforce. The people who are consulted as experts shape the Covid-19 response based on their expertise and backgrounds. The paper highlights that when Covid-19 task forces are too homogeneous, they risk overlooking vulnerabilities within the population. An example of such oversight is lockdown measures and border closures in Latin America that have exacerbated the already precarious situation of migrants and refugees. Non-citizens are often overlooked by protective measures such as labour market support, but of course still affected by curfews and restrictions like everyone else.

Secondly, our initiative seeks to provide an evidence-base for the WHO Health Systems Governance Collaborative’s recent call for a “global governance reset” following the Covid-19 response and recovery. It is during the Covid-19 pandemic that the post-pandemic world is developing, and the relationships between actors are changing in many countries. For instance, Australia has developed new public-private health care partnerships in response to the pandemic, which could have long-term implications on how health care is provided there. Another example is relationships between national and decentralised governments that change through the pandemic response. In Nigeria, the federal government put lockdown measures in place in some states, while others had their Covid-19 responses run by state governor. It is worth noting where such new governance structures are developing and what that might mean in the post-pandemic future.

Our very recent research on the use of state of emergency to fight Covid-19 demonstrates the very different way this legal measure is applied in different countries. In some countries it is clearly regulated through votes and end dates, while emergency laws in other cases seem more akin to a power grab without any clear timeframe. In some countries heavily affected by the pandemic, there were no reported state of emergency, probably because the domestic internal political context already gave the government extensive discretionary power (or because government did not ‘believe’ in Covid-19).

Our team is made up of researchers from six African, European, and Australian universities, and we are now reaching out to volunteers to collect accurate data on as many countries as possible. In order to structure the information we gather, we have created forms looking at three areas:

  1. The general legal and social context in which the Covid-19 response is taking place. We are documenting the existence (or lack) of different states of emergency and national frameworks for dealing with infectious disease. What are their timelines and legal statuses, how are they challenged if at all, and how do they link to international bodies and (where relevant) existing humanitarian responses?
  2. The actors involved in the Covid-19 response. The question of taskforces is crucial and should be further developed, but there are also private sector and civil society actors coming to the fore. Who are these actors? What do they decide one? Are they new players in health governance or established ones? How do they relate to the existing health system? These are only some of the questions we are interested in.
  3. The measures put in place within the Covid-19 response. There is already an impressive amount of work being done worldwide on mapping government measures (for instance Oxford’ Covid-19 Government Response tracker), but what about the measures taken by other actors? Importantly, beyond the what question, we are interested in the legal and societal nature of these measures, who takes them, and based on what.

Since our research involves most (if not all) countries in the world, this task is big. Our objective, for now, is to document key cases as well as possible. By joining and contributing to our project, you can tell us about cases you find important and interesting in relation to Covid-19 governance and help us decide what countries to focus our continued work. You may wish to talk about your country, but your analysis may also focus on other countries for which you may have important and referenced information. Check our website, join us today on Collectivity and contribute, or contact us if you have any question.

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