Taylor Brown | Palladium - May 19 2020
Thinking and Working Politically in a Pandemic

Photo Credit: Chris Slupski

COVID-19 is an unprecedented health challenge, and the first priority for international actors – donors, INGOs, foundations, and the private sector – is to deliver humanitarian assistance and immediate support to fragile health systems.

It is also a profound economic challenge, bringing manufacturing, trade, and commerce to an abrupt halt and reshaping economies from the household to the transnational level. Our secondary, yet parallel, priority is to help manage and minimise the economic fallout.

But as we deliver on these priorities, we should not take our eyes off the pandemic’s governance and political implications.

While we will likely develop a vaccine for the virus and eventually recover economically, changes to politics and systems of government may be more lasting and harder to undo. COVID-19 appears to be a ‘critical juncture’ in which change is so fast and significant that longstanding political rules and systems may be fundamentally challenged and changed. The pandemic will likely disrupt and reshape the ways in which governments and political systems work, and the relationship that citizens have with their governments. Some of these changes may be subtle, but some may be profound.

For example, in some cases, the pandemic and its response may foster increased social solidarity and cohesion, create new spaces for social and political accountability, and foster more inclusive political systems. In other cases, the political fallout from the virus may contribute to more exclusive and autocratic systems of government, increased social and political polarisation, and even conflict.

International actors need to ‘think and work politically’ about COVID-19.

Thinking Politically

To ‘think’ politically about COVID-19, we need to explore not just how governments are responding to the pandemic, but why they are responding to it in the way that they are. We then need to explore the potential longer-term implications of these actions. We need to ask:

  • What political interests and incentives are shaping government responses to COVID-19? How might politicians and other social, political and economic actors exploit COVID-19 and responses to it to further their interest, agendas, and ideologies?

  • Is the response likely to foster greater trust in government? Will the crisis create openings for more inclusive and accountable governance? Or will it undermine trust?

  • How might the development and humanitarian assistance provided be misused by the powerful or corrupt?

These questions can help us untangle the ways in which the politics and governance of a country will be affected by the pandemic in the longer term. They should also help us map out potential unintended consequences of our engagement.

Working Politically

We also need to ‘work’ politically. We have to ensure that:

  • We don’t rush to import responses to COVID from outside contexts. Lockdowns, for instance, will have dramatically different outcomes depending on local demography and government capacity.

  • The resources provided in responding to COVID, from medicines and PPE to emergency finance, are not diverted or misused.

  • We work in ways that promote social cohesion and reinforce gender equality. We need to pay particular attention to people who are bearing a disproportionate burden during the pandemic: informal sector workers, the elderly, people with disabilities, those living in crowded urban areas, and vulnerable ethnic minorities.

The pandemic also reinforces the importance of being adaptive and agile. For instance, in Nigeria, Palladium’s teams have re-oriented our network of media platforms and citizen groups to equip citizens with timely, accurate information about COVID-19. In Nepal, our Economic Policy Incubator team has pivoted from longer-term policy priorities to rapid fire policy support to the government on COVID-19’s effects on investment, tourism and trade.

Thinking and working politically in such a destabilising and fast-moving context is more easily said than done, particularly given the urgency of the response needed. But doing so in our COVID-19 responses can help us to avoid doing harm in our haste to do good.

Taylor Brown is Palladium's Governance Director for EMEA. Contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com to learn more.