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The Coronavirus Pandemic and Public Administration

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

By Laila El Baradei
April 8, 2020

Stay home they said.” Painting by Farah Shoukry 

It may be too soon to comment about the Corona Virus or COVID-19 pandemic while it is still currently taking the world by storm, but these are only reflections of a public administration faculty, residing in a developing country, and like many people around the world, trying to abide by the new rules of social distancing and evening curfews.

COVID-19 is teaching us all a number of lessons. We were taking a lot of things for granted, assuming that life will go on as it always has, with the same types of nuisances at work and at home. Suddenly, we find everything is changing. We are reminded of the adage that says, “Be careful what you wish for.” How many of us have yearned for years to be able to work from home? Now, when many have to work from home all the time, it is not the best scenario. We are living under “lock down” and glued to our seats for long hours day and night. For those who have children out of school also staying at home, it becomes much harder. How will the children manage to do their online homework and the parents attend their online meetings, and still have all the chores around the house get done simultaneously? This is quite a challenge. There is a long list of things we were complaining about and are now missing, including: the street noise, the long commutes, the family gatherings, the social events, the busy conferences and even occasionally the work meetings and funerals. People are stuck in their homes in isolation.

Apart from all that anxiety, what is happening with the coronavirus and public administration? How are things changing and how are they expected to change further? A lot of lessons can be derived, even this soon:

  • A multi-disciplinary approach for public policy making is key. It is not a luxury. The decisions related to health are strongly tied to security policies, aviation control, traffic regulation, media, education and the economy at large. When top leadership decides on the need for a lock-down, a curfew, or airports closure, all other sectors of the economy are directly affected. It is not any more the decision of the Minister of Education about whether to keep the schools open or not, but it has to be a joint decision with inputs from all sectors.
  • We have to learn how to live and operate under ambiguity: In public administration graduate classes, we many times tell our students that there is no one right answer to a problem, and that often policymaking occurs whilst there is limited information following the bounded rationality model. COVID-19 will be the perfect example for policy making under imperfect conditions.
  • Autocratic regimes like China did well in controlling their population and fighting the pandemic but this does not mean we should emulate the Chinese autocratic model. We should focus on how they used big data to analyze the spread of the disease, not on their violations of the privacy of individuals and/or violation of other human rights. Other autocratic regimes in the developing world violate privacies and collect lots of data and information but fail to use it productively. We all know of governments that use their intelligence agencies to collect data and information about political opposition, for example, but then end up using this data in organizing smear campaigns or reporting scandalous activities.
  • Political differences and social and economic classes were dissolved overnight by Covid19. Prince Charles in Britain, Prince Albert II in Monaco, Boris Johnson the British Prime Minister, actors, celebrities, military officials and many formerly privileged individuals, because of their positions, wealth or power stand powerless in front of the infinitesimal, and yet most malicious of viruses. We ended up being all equal.
  • As a globe we need to set our priorities straight: Nationally and globally there is a need for more prudent budgetary allocations to the things that matter. All the military equipment on which nations overspend failed in dealing with the pandemic. Health and education rise again and again as the most important national and global priorities. With better investment in research and education we can perhaps be nearer to the discovery of vaccines and cures for our common ailment.
  • Global cooperation is vital to fight global problems: The earlier belief that each country can close its borders, build walls and just focus on its own interests will no longer work.
  • Act fast, make timely decisions and rather be safe than sorry: Again, coming to the fore is the idea that it is the human being’s health, safety and overall well-being that we should concentrate upon, rather than anything else. Let us forget about GDP and let us not brag about per capita income, if we cannot guarantee basic health services, safety and security for our citizens.

These were just a few lessons to ponder while following the raging news about COVID-19, hoping that the nightmare will be over soon and that the public policymakers and public administrators in charge will lead us in the right direction!

Author: Laila El Baradei is a Professor of Public Administration at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, the American University in Cairo. She is a regular contributor to PA Times Online. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Egyptianwoman

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