COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of our lives around the world. COVID-19 is the disease arising from the latest coronavirus discovered in 2019. In fact, coronaviruses themselves are not new; they are implicated in anything from the common cold to more severe conditions such as MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). However, in times of crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and social repercussions, public governance matters more than ever. Governance arrangements have played a critical role in countries’ immediate responses. These arrangements will continue to be crucial both to the recovery and to building a “new normal” once the crisis has passed. The enormity of the situation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic invites or, instead, forces us to reflect on the nature and effectiveness of our systems of governance. And not just of health systems, but more broadly the governance of our very complex societies and their transnational flows.
Recently, the Council of Europe experts have opined that COVID-19 is a test for democracies, and good governance is the key to success. Over a hundred experts and observers from the European Committee on Democracy and Governance (CDDG) shared lessons learned during an online meeting. They included the importance of coordination and communication between administrations and civil society, the frontline role of local authorities, and cross border cooperation. Many administrations have developed new working methods, and simplified administrative procedures held online meetings, and provided online access to citizens.In the space of a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has grown deadly, killing thousands and making millions ill while placing an unprecedented strain on healthcare systems and other public services worldwide. Efforts by governments to try to control the pandemic’s spread while managing its broad-ranging impacts demonstrate the critical role of the relationship between the state and people in shaping and determining government responses, strategies, and approaches in tackling the crisis. Efforts by governments to fight the spread of the virus have placed a spotlight on the critical role of effective and inclusive governance, and importantly on the relationship between the state and people.
Unfortunately, health crises often bring out snake oil salespeople, profiteers, and sticky fingers - even more so when trillions of dollars are rapidly dispersed to respond to the crisis. A report of ‘U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre’ stated that “what we do know from previous epidemics and global crises is that they provide a perfect environment for corruption to flourish and that this guarantees the further loss of life, depreciation in public trust, and dysfunction in society that persists much longer than the crisis itself”. However, governments, civil society, and their partners have a wealth of tools at their disposal to help strengthen good governance and increase transparency and accountability.
More specifically, the effectiveness of the response to the Covid-19 emergency greatly depends on the level of coordination and cooperation between the different actors involved. It also depends on the active participation of civil society, as regards not only the respect of confinement measures but also the direct involvement in voluntary work aimed at sustaining the response effort.
The response to COVID-19 must comply with the fundamental principles of democracy. Compliance with standards of good democratic governance as set out by theorists and practitioners is equally important to ensure that, in all states, citizens and civil society at large can continue to benefit from the provision of essential services, with minimum disruption, and have trust in the authorities. Delivering democratic governance while responding to this unprecedented sanitary emergency requires leadership, adaptability, and innovation.
There is another aspect of this issue. Despite the collective efforts of the struggle against COVID-19, the pandemic emerged in a context of governance fragmentation and acute inequality. A critical global governance perspective helps elucidate how scale matters concerning the COVID-19 crisis. Contrary to the aspirations of the rhetoric that accompanied the emergence of global governance as a process of confluence and cooperation among multiple actors, state and non-state actors, fragmentation has been a quality of this globalising process from its inception. No doubt that unevenness of power has always been present in global governance, where ‘some states have been far more capable actors than other states and non-state actors’.
In addition to varying state capacity, globalisation as a process of increasing connections and flows is populated by inequality and exceptions. In the wake of the current COVID-19 crisis, governance mechanisms at different scales demonstrate problems of coordination, uneven capacities, and claims of authority. Similarly, the social and economic dimensions of the crisis affect countries and communities differently due to different levels of preparedness of their health, social security systems, and infrastructure capacity. In other words, the COVID-19 pandemic emerges in a context of fragmentation and is most likely to perpetuate and sharpen global inequality. Fragmentation and inequality have geopolitical implications that go from individual human bodies to the bodies of nation-states and finally to the existing global governance architecture, all of which have critical effects on the success of effective global responses to the crisis.The health dimension of the pandemic underpinned declarations of a state of emergency in numerous countries, which generally did not have governance perspectives embedded. Yet, effective governance is more acutely needed in emergency contexts. The restrictions often encompass setting rules and incentives such as enforceable orders, directives, or recommendations to shape social behaviours and accomplish public interest objectives within a Human Rights-restricted framework. In this context, maintaining a system of checks and balances in governance cannot be undermined, especially while the government plans service delivery, builds trust in public institutions, develops clear socio-economic recovery policies, and rebuilds social connectivity. But it should be remembered that any intervention needs, as a yardstick, the classical governance values of accountability, transparency, and participation, adherence to the rule of law, and a rights-based approach that promotes inclusive development and sustainability. The agility of our various nation-state governments is going to be tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, as will be their capacity to respond swiftly, effectively, and decisively. Civil society and not-for-profit organisations, with the skills and capabilities to make a meaningful contribution, stand ready to assist and support, working with governments and the private sector to optimise a whole-of-society approach. We shall overcome; the world is together against COVID-19!
(The author acknowledges with gratitude the different sources of information.)
The writer is the Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Jagannath University, Dhaka.