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The Pandemic, Temporality and Complexity in Public Policy

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

By Mauricio Covarrubias
November 28, 2021

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic dramatically 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 also, it emanates from the material causes inherent to the problems; as well as the fact that they go beyond the territorial, sectoral and temporal references of organization and action of governments. In other words, problems do not respect nations, states or other political-administrative borders; being multi-causal, they cut across policy compartments or areas; and they involve causes, processes and consequences of long duration that transcend the timespans of government administrations.

Because complex problems are dynamic, over time, the same phenomenon can vary from one state to another and increase its level of complexity. Problems that have not been solved or mitigated have become chronic, escalating in complexity. This means that they affect more places and people in a more profound and lasting way, remaining on the agenda of social concerns.

Thus, the degradation of the environment, the demographic transition—which brings with it the aging of the population—the depletion of aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, as well as the epidemic of obesity or the new coronavirus, are problems that have a chronology other than the life cycles of governments. These are issues where policymakers must establish and maintain durable policy goals and objectives that act on structural factors, rather than on their conjunctural manifestations. According to Auld, Bernstein, Cashore & Levin, scientific evidence, rather than electoral cycles, must dictates specific time requirements.

The term latency is illustrative of the role that the variable time plays in the development of health problems. It is defined as the time that elapses between exposure to something that can cause illness, such as radiation or a virus, and the manifestation of symptoms. It also denotes the incubation period of a disease or the interval between stimulus and response.

For example, latency has to do with the development of obesity as a public health problem since, rather than being a sudden shock to society, it is a problem that has taken decades to develop. Robert Olson argues that obesity is a clear sign of problems with a slow deterioration pattern which extends beyond the term in which governments prepare their plans. Slower evolving epidemics do not necessarily give more time to react. In fact, growing slowly, they can be much more difficult to tackle and reverse; in addition, they can have a much greater and more lasting impact. In an article published in Forbes, Bruce Y. Lee points out that there is increasing evidence that obesity is a global catastrophe in slow motion.

Expanding a little more on the temporal dimension of public health problems, and with it, on the concept of latency, the case of the attack on the World Trade Center is illustrative of the time that elapses between exposure to radiation and symptoms. Caroline Lester, in his article for The New Yorker, “The Continuing Legacy of 9/11,” points out three waves that have been documented in the victims of September 11. The first is represented by the immediate deaths and injuries caused by the collapse of the twin towers. The second wave is due to aerodigestive disorders related to the inhalation of particles released by the explosion, including gastroesophageal reflux disorder, and chronic rhinosinusitis, which were diagnosed years later among the survivors. The third wave could be made up of people exposed to ground zero carcinogenic dusts who developed the disease over periods of more than twenty years. For the doctors of the World Trade Center Health Program in the coming decades, the number of people affected may increase.

The pandemic is far from over. Unfortunately, we are realizing that waves of infections are a common pattern in virus pandemics and that, enabled by globalization, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to mutate and spread so fast and so far as possible. Our understanding of how long the condition of the new coronavirus lasts is not yet completely clear, and the conditions and complications of the post-COVID-19 condition should be added. According to the Director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, Francis Collins, people’s lives may have completely changed due to the main long-term effects of COVID-19.

Long-COVID includes shortness of breath, cognitive dysfunction or brain fog and fatigue as the most common symptoms (see WHO’s 2021 publication, Post COVID-19 condition). A fairly long list of more than 200 symptoms that have been reported in patients includes things like chest pain, slurred speech, anxiety or depression, muscle aches, fever, loss of smell and loss of taste. Although there are millions of people who, having been infected at some point, were treated, and now feel fine, COVID-19 can act like a ticking time bomb in the body that can go off at any time, at any place (See Dhruv Khullar’s 2021 article, “The Struggle to Define Long COVID”).

In summary, from the temporal perspective, social problems are so complex because they challenge planning horizons traditionally limited to the duration of government cycles that, due to the lack of a long-term vision, abandon attention, evolution and the future effects of these problems.


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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