Pandemic – Crystallising the need and challenges for policy advice

Photo: Stetoscope and Notebook

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With a global pandemic like COVID-19, there is an obvious need for policy makers to get experts‘ input to take decisions. The slogan used during the Brexit campaign that „people are tired of experts“ never sounded hollower than currently.

A pandemic is a very clear case for evidence as a basis for political decisions. Obviously, virologists are needed to address these questions and communicate what they know. This is a time with very vivid illustrations for the need for and the workings of evidence-informed policy making: We need evidence and experiences, from multiple perspectives and we need to put things into local contexts; and we certainly operate based on our value-systems.

Here are four key points that the crisis fleshes out very sharply with regard to policy advice:

Evidence matters – hugely!

Investment in research institutions and higher education is evidently no luxury, but an investment in societies‘ resilience and long-term survival. Past austerity measures are being grimly paid for now, as capable public institutions are needed, including in public health and research. The need for medical knowledge is immediately understood in the midst of a pandemic: How can we slow down the infection rates? Who are particularly vulnerable? Policy makers need answers to these questions in order to formulate a policy response. This is arguably not much different from other policy areas, but much more intuitively understood.

The crisis illustrates, that having a knowledge system to produce evidence is crucial. Similarly, we see that sciences matter for policy making, including social sciences. Policy measures need to be monitored for their effects, not least effects on the economy and livelihoods, and community behaviour needs to be understood.

Transdisciplinarity and locality is needed in policy advice – no one expert knows it all!

Virologists and epidemiologists are the experts of the moment. They are, however, not the only source of information. Policy-makers also have to consider how the outbreak affects the public health system, society, fundamental freedoms, the economy, and relations with global partners. These questions do not occur at the same time with the same urgency. Yet, the longer the pandemic lasts, the more the longterm and multifaceted effects come into the debate. Transdisciplinarity is crucial in a setting with complex, interacting effects of any policy response.

Furthermore, there is a strong case for local expertise. Policy measures need to fit to local conditions. Our understanding of the realities of different communities determines how effective measures can be – and how to implement, if not enforce them. Poorer societies and poorer people face harsher consequences from a lock-down than the wealthy. People who live of (uncertain) daily income need support in order to being able to feed their family under conditions of a lock-down. Social distancing by keeping people in their spaces has different effects in crowded townships – or in refugee camps with little sanitary infrastructure.

This illustrates the need to build and maintain research capacities in different disciplines and institutions, both for collecting data and even more so for policy recommendations that suit the local context.

Clear communication on facts and uncertainties – researchers inform, decision-makers decide

At the core of policy advice is intense communication. Scientists need to communicate their key insights clearly. Decision-makers have to understand key facts and uncertainties. And in accountable societies, the population at large has to consent to measures, i.e. parallel communication needs to happen beyond a limited group of experts. Policy and public engagement is important for problem solving.

Often – as in this crisis – data comes with limitations and analysis is based on a number of (uncertain) assumptions. During this new pandemic, scientists are researching the virus while being asked for advice at the same time. Recommendations will thus have uncertainties and might not yet represent “hard“ evidence. It is therefore ever more important to explain mechanism at work. They will need to be explained to the population, particularly to those severely affected by them. Scientists thus present different scenarios and inform choices; they do not and cannot determine policies.

The choices are for policy-makers with a mandate. They are accountable to the population, even more so as policy measures can inflict hardships and come as a test to people’s patience and sometimes their economic survival. During a pandemic, measures need to be taken against a virus that comes with in-built delays (due to incubation time). For other policy measures, too, e.g. for combatting climate change, delayed effects occur. In other words: it’s communication, stupid!

Values guide choices – for policy-makers and researchers

All policy responses are rooted in values. And research usually is based on value choices, too, albeit they often remain implicit. With a pandemic, the policy response in most places is first and foremost driven by the urge to save lives. Health systems should be able to avert the inhumane choice of who to help and who to leave to their fate. In other crises than pandemics, the choice might not be so obviously an immediate matter of life or death. Yet, all decisions are influenced by value systems.

For democratic societies, the measures taken are extreme in this current crisis. It is important to re-consider them on a regular basis and critically check for their effectiveness, so that is does not become carte blanche for authoritarianism (Hungary has just been reclassified and is the first non-democratic EU member state, mind you…).

And measures need to be open to criticism. They will need to be explained to the population, particularly to those severely affected by them.

Long-term effects and the need for transnational cooperation

The first rapid response measures to this pandemic were mainly informed by virologists, rightly so, but they have social and economic spill-over effects as they include closure of borders, and a ban on the export of medical supplies. Other disciplines therefore have to be consulted, too. Already in the very beginning response measures have to consider trans- and international effects, which will need to go beyond the immediate reflex of „saving my community“. Close interconnections between people and our economies do effectively mean that we cannot “save ourselves” in isolation from others, neither with regard to viruses nor in terms of our livelihoods. This is a lesson for any crisis.

The longer the crisis last, the more we will have to consider longer-term effects which are many and often unclear. Three elements should feature: First, the crisis is likely to separate responsible leaders from populists. The former rise to the challenge and rely on evidence to provide real solutions. Secondly, this crisis sharply illustrates the relevance of academic research and its training systems, for all countries and societies. And thirdly, researchers have a public role and responsibility. Research is crucial in the quest for the (global) common good.

Image: Sven Grimm

Sven Grimm is Head of the Programme “Inter- and Transnational Cooperation with the Global South” at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS)

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