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Comprehensive vs. Incremental Responses: The Debate Intensifies with the Pandemic. Part I

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mauricio Covarrubias
January 12, 2022

The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every nation in the world, highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses of the type of institutional capacities considered essential in crisis situations. According to Francis Fukuyama, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a laboratory for testing different governance systems in the face of a public -health crisis, ultimately revealing massive variance in country performance. The huge variation in how countries have performed during the pandemic points to deeper underlying political and governance issues that have now come fully into view.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic epitomizes the intricate nature of today’s great social problems. This complexity comes from the process of social construction that determines what and how public problems are assumed. But, as proposed in this Part I of this short column series, it also emanates from the material causes inherent to the problems, as well as the fact that they challenge governance structures, which are in many ways out of sync.

Public Problems and Governance Structures

The characteristics of governance structures, from which public problems are defined and policies are designed to deal with them, interact and often amplify the missteps in policy choices made by political leaders. Gaskell, Stoker, Jennings, and Devine, point out that governance failures reflect not only policy choice errors, but also structural features of governance systems that make shortcomings more likely. The complexity of social problems represented by COVID-19, in terms of public policy, involve the following five dimensions:

  • The dimension of social construction: Social problems involve multiple actors, interests, conflicts and veto points. As we are seeing it, the pandemic has given rise to conflicting and value-laden opinions regarding the definition and solution of the problem. COVID-19 has caused the simultaneous existence of multiple urgent and interdependent social objectives, creating a fundamental problem of prioritizing one aspect over another. Such goals can be identified in short-term reduction of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality, mitigation of long-term social impacts of containment policies, and adverse financial consequences. Angeli, Camporesi, and Dal Fabbro indicate that prioritization options generate conflicting views from stakeholders about what the problem is (for example, number of catastrophic deaths versus possible economic collapse) and related solutions (for example, lockdown measures versus softer virus control mechanisms).
  • The dimension of material causes: The complexity of social problems is part of their nature. The theory does not offer a univocal definition, but there is consensus that the complexity of phenomena and systems, social or natural, is the product of uncertain non-linear relationships as an emergent property. COVID-19 is not just a health crisis, it is an all-encompassing social crisis (economy, education, governance) whose effects will be felt for years. For example, global warming is complex, and not only because there are many interpretations of it, which are related to perceptions, interests and the dominant value system in societies. It is also complex, as Göktuğ Morçöl mentions, because the natural processes that warming generates (atmospheric conditions, interactions between the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere with temperatures, etc.) are complex as well. Although the definition of a public problem is a political problem, it does not mean neglecting the need to advance in a more objective definition of them.
  • The spatial dimension: As a global crisis COVID-19 does not respect nations, states or other borders. By moving on different scales and ignoring borders, it has developed its own geography. Furthermore, the maps of the different problems overlap, threatening the self-sufficiency and stability of the borders: political-administrative maps are no longer very useful to understand them and even less to contain them. The geography of the coronavirus does not have fixed borders. On the contrary, the virus is defined or modified according to its own dynamics and virulence. Although some countries have benefited from strong public health systems, strengthened by a vigorous government response, the pandemic engulfed the world, afflicting the rich nations and devastating the poorest; the mechanism of action of the virus is amplified in precariousness.
  • The causal dimension: Due to the numerous causes and contributing factors (some deeper than others) that COVID-19 involves, attention to its social impacts compromises different areas of public policy. As with most major problems, its cross-cutting effects go beyond sectoral or unilateral responses, falling into an area of mixed jurisdictions. As Quim Brugué warns, an overwhelmed policy generates impotent public policies, since “quick solutions”, or those aimed at a single factor, are unlikely to work. We must add that problems are intertwined in innumerable circuits, interacting very often and in unpredictable ways. The level of interconnectedness means that changes anywhere, unexpectedly and sometimes dangerously, affect the entire system. We are now faced with much more intertwined phenomena than before, and this connectivity allows their effects to spread rapidly. In this context, the repercussions of making the wrong political decisions have become more serious and encompassing, with potentially catastrophic results. In the health field, Hanen Samouda emphasizes that COVID-19 has shown us that the interaction of contagious diseases with other health risk factors—demographic, socioeconomic and behavioral—results in very intricate patterns of spread.

In the next column, in addition to the temporal dimension of public problems, I’ll explore the need to move towards more comprehensive policies.


Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico. He co-founder and Vice President since 2014, of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS). He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS + Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT. He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias and LinkedIn @ http://linkedin.com/in/mauricio-covarrubias-2b49bb57

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