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Facing the Conundrums of the Corona Crisis: Challenges to Political Leadership

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(4 May 2020)

by Paul 't Hart, Professor, Public Administration, Utrecht University, Netherlands

Now that most (Western) countries are veering towards the tail end of the acute stage of the crisis where it was all about frantically gearing up the health system and "flattening the curve," the real strategic challenges of the crisis are only just beginning. It is in the next stage of the crisis that things get much more tricky. While the pandemic continues and more targeted ways of containing it are being tried out, the punishing economic destruction and social pain created by the lockdowns will start to sink in and demand attention. The containment measures are here to stay for much longer than we anticipated. We have been told we are "hibernating" large parts of our economy, evoking the image of a sleepy and hungry bear waking up, then wandering off to get busy acquiring the now plentiful food. If only it were going to be this easy and fluid.

In reality, the adaptive stage of this crisis is unlike anything Western nations have faced since the oil embargos and price hikes of 1973/4 obliterated the economic equation underpinning their thriving economies and burgeoning welfare states. Like then, we cannot and will not go "back to normal". The shock and its many reverberations are simply too big, diverse and widespread to make it possible for us to simply bounce back and recover. Communities everywhere have to come to terms with loss, grief, radical uncertainty, loss of control, and deep value conflicts.

Dealing with Gordian knots and managing social fault lines exacerbated by crises is what we have our political systems and leaders for. As a society we will be judged on how well they – and we – "do politics" at this critical time. What policy conundrums, political conflicts, and organizational tensions are there to be worked through? Here is a provisional inventory of the issues that will test the mettle of leaders and institutions worldwide:

Tragic choices in and for the health and care systems. Stepping in or standing back while life and death decisions are being made in hospitals, general practices, nursing homes, aged care facilities, and shelters about 1) distribution of IC-beds/ventilators; 2) selection of eligible patients for life-saving treatment; 3) deployment of critical staff in cure and care; 4) purchasing and distribution of protective equipment; 5) supply and distribution of medicines.

Securing supply chains. In the international race to ensure continued supply of critical medical and other resources in a shut-down world, what does "we will do whatever it takes" amount to? Arm-twisting, elbowing, threatening, bribing, stealing?

From lockdowns to targeted risk-reduction. Once states manage to "flatten the curve" – what then? The economic and social costs of lockdowns are staggering. But the technical and ethical complexities of more targeted measures – track and trace apps, compulsory isolation of at-risk groups – are no less perplexing.

Managing economic upheaval. Designing, coordinating, delivering, and maintaining support for mega-stimulus packages and crisis-induced monetary and tax measures is very easy to get wrong (as the experiences during the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2009 taught us) How do governments decide how much money to spend? How do they get it where it counts when it counts? How do they design delivery to dodge the known risks of delayed impact, market distortions, economic torts, and fraud? How do they set incentives for the economy to bounce back and come off the government's tap as quickly as possible?

Why don't we do as they did? As infection and casualty rates appear to differ markedly across and within countries, the pressure mounts to imitate the approaches taken by jurisdictions with the best numbers, notwithstanding significant institutional, cultural, and economic differences between them. Also, the recent lapse in the country whose policies were touted as "best practice" early on (Singapore) further suggests leaders need to be prudent and discerning rather than quick of the mark in cross-national imitation and lesson-drawing. Given persisting and manifold uncertainties about the behaviour of the virus and the impact of various containment policies, how and when can we draw lessons that could be implemented in different settings?

National versus international regimes of crisis response. What aspects of the health, economic, and border control responses are countries willing coordinate in (let alone delegate to) intergovernmental and transnational institutions such as the European Union, the IMF, the WHO? International policy alignment may improve the effectiveness (and fairness) of responses, but involves trading in national sovereignty and will be politically costly back home.

Primary versus secondary impacts. In the face of a plethora of issues needing urgent resolution, how should policymakers devote their attention, political capital, and operational resources across the many theatres of this megacrisis? The prime focus is still on the acute public health challenges, but economic health is beginning to rival it. Meanwhile the secondary impacts – spikes in homelessness, depression, family violence, alcohol and substance abuse – are mounting and will start to "bite." How do we open and run the conversation about what losses we are prepared to sustain where, what a fair distribution of pain could like, and how that would be brought about?

What expertise to mobilize, listen to, and trust? How will policymakers deal with the inevitable proliferation of and disagreement between experts both within and across sectoral domains and academic disciplines? Both economic and medical modellers are currently unable to produce feasible end game models to the crisis – factors such as timelines, the levels of uncertainty, and the complex and transboundary interaction effects make modelling extremely variable and uncertain. The implication is that making strategic calls about lockdowns and track-and-trace is closer to policy gambling than to following expert advice.

Expanding versus checking executive power. To achieve the egg of optimal Corona containment, some leaders and governments have not thought twice about breaking the eggs of privacy (deploying track and trace apps, appropriating and distributing patient records), accountable government (assuming emergency powers, in some cases potentially indefinitely so), and other pillars of democratic governance. In the new aC (after Corona) era, what liberties are societies prepared to suspend and what checks and balances are they prepared to relax in the name of safety and security – with the knowledge that there will be new megacrises beyond the horizon?

Restoration or reform. Once the health system can cope with the influx of patients and the mountains of dead bodies begin to shrink, the crisis experience will have revealed much about our societies, our institutions, our systems for governing risk, our values, beliefs, and bonds. What will be the thrust of the lessons we choose to draw from the self-examination that will follow. Do we chose to "go back to normal" with better risk management and quick response capacity in place? Do we set out to transform important swathes of our beliefs, priorities, policies, institutions, and alliances? Are we going to "bring back the state"? Will we rediscover and re-appreciate the caring professions, the social sector, the notion of community? Will we try and harness markets to better serve public purposes?

How our leaders and government institutions tackle these uncomfortable challenges will define their legacies and shape their countries' futures. Will the Corona crisis be handled with poise, decency, and resilience, or be allowed to derail and spawn bitterness, instability, and decline? Leader performances before and during the crisis will be scrutinized intensely. Reputations will be made and broken; blame will be dispensed; windows of opportunity for change will open and close.

We know from past research into how different countries tackled the HIV/AIDS epidemic that the kind of top-down, statist, authoritative approaches that some government leaders are naturally drawn to in a crisis, are in fact less effective than their proponents presume.1 The spread of HIV/AIDS was tackled more swiftly in countries with more broad-based collaborative approaches that allowed broader expertise to be considered, and integrated the resources and repertoires of actors that have critical roles to play in implementing and securing support for the agreed-upon response measures. This call was for less heroic and more inclusive policymaking. From our political leaders this requires less use of their 'power to decide' and more use of their power to convene, facilitate, broker, and then persuade.

We cannot be naïve. Tackling Corona with purpose and integrity requires leadership that does not deny, dodge, or distort the dilemmas. We need political systems finding ways to harness what political economist Charles Lindblom once dubbed "the intelligence of democracy". This is not helped by leaders pretending that they have the answers, when it is patently obvious that they do not. As a society we will need to adapt to, and learn to live in this new reality. Political leaders can help us do that. First, by ensuring that the right questions get asked. Second, by finding ways of orchestrating the conflicts we need to have so that we have them at a sensible time and with the wide array of knowledge, voices and values that lie at the core of democracies' strengths. And third, by foregoing the illusion of top-down control and instead embracing the complexity of collective wisdom at a time when we need it most.

1M. Bovens, P. 't Hart, B. Guy Peters (eds), Success and Failure in Public Governance: A Comparative Analysis, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar 2001

Paul Hart Paul 't Hart, professor of public administration at Utrecht University and the Netherlands School of Public Administration is a long-time student of both crisis management and public leadership. These two interests are aligned in some of his 50 books published to date, most recently in The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure (Cambridge University Press 2nd ed, 2017, co-authored with Arjen Boin, Eric Stern and Bengt Sundelius, and winner of the Herbert Simon Award of the American Political Science Association).

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