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Why the western world was too late to respond to Covid

Almost all the western countries were too late responding to the outbreak of Covid. Why was that? Three governance experts, including Leiden professor Arjen Boin, have written a book about the response to the pandemic. ‘Our current system isn’t geared towards identifying and managing a long-term crisis,’ Boin says in an interview.

Boin has already published a book about the Dutch response to the crisis COVID-19. Een analyse van de nationale crisisrespons. In the open access book Governing the Pandemic he and Paul ’t Hart (Utrecht University) and Allan McConnell (University of Sydney) have now analysed how Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand responded to coronavirus.

‘All the countries had contingency plans for a pandemic, but these proved not to work.’

Significant differences in Covid measures

What strikes him about the Covid response in the western countries? ‘Above all, the considerable differences in the measures that they took,’ says Boin. In the first wave, the measures in the Netherlands were much more lenient than in Italy, Ireland or Spain, for instance. There, lockdowns were accompanied by more stringent bans, like being prohibited from leaving your own area and strict curfews being imposed.

The different approaches are also clear when you compare the first and second Covid waves. The death rate in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands was relatively high, whereas it was much lower in Norway, Denmark and Finland. These countries pursued a consistently strict policy during the second wave too. Factors such as population density, new coronavirus variants and a less obedient population may also have played a role.

Contingency plans didn’t work

The authors analysed four aspects of the crisis management: how the countries dealt with uncertainty, how they mobilised capacity, the level of public support and the learning capacity of the organisations that had to respond to the crisis. ‘All of the countries had contingency plans for a pandemic, but these proved not to work at all,’ says Boin. Some Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan appear to have adopted a more realistic response, which could be because the SARS outbreak was still fresh in their minds.

After initial scepticism the British prime minister Boris Johnson announced Covid measures in mid-March.

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Finnish approach stands out

Within Europe Finland provide particularly able to rapidly declare a state of emergency. After the Cold War this country has continued to see war as a real possibility, and the Finnish contingency plans therefore took into account that the government would swiftly have to take charge in a crisis. Boin: ‘It’s about a widely shared understanding that something bad can happen. But many western countries didn’t have supplies of things that you didn’t need straight away, like face masks, because that would be inefficient.’

Recommendations for better crisis organisations

One important lesson is that we shouldn’t assume that an immense crisis can’t suddenly break out in the western world. ‘No country intervened in time when Covid broke out. That makes it important to invest in identifying a developing crisis so that we can act faster. Measures such as quickly closing the borders are draconian, but we have now seen the cost of this happening too late if at all.’

More capacity is therefore needed in the crisis teams and the role of experts should be clearer. ‘In many countries the decision making was very ad hoc: the measures were sometimes based on scientific insights and sometimes not, but were just to be doing anything at all. The role of experts was different per country. In some countries they were at the helm, whereas in others they weren’t.’

A lot of knowledge is lost

How about the crisis management capacity in the Netherlands? A committee led by Leiden professor Erwin Muller evaluated the implementation of the Safety Region Act in 2020. This also showed that the Netherlands needs to invest more in professionalising its crisis management. What is more, much knowledge is lost because civil servants are expected to change jobs every few years. Boin: ‘Last summer a group of civil servants once again switched jobs at the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport when they had just gained crisis expertise. This makes it difficult to learn from past experience.’

‘This pandemic is the ultimate stress test for our crisis systems.’

Look at the leaders

The authors also call for more attention to be paid to leaders in a crisis: what does it mean for Prime Minister Rutte, Health Minister De Jonge and their international colleagues if a crisis is of extremely long duration? Are we prepared? Do they need more support? ‘We can learn from this for if we find ourselves in other long-term crisis such as flooding. Our current system isn’t geared towards managing a long-term crisis. This crisis has shown that.’

Will citizens listen?

A deciding factor is the obedience of the population. Boin: ‘What you see is the impatience and irritation in many western citizens who no longer want to stick to the measures: they want the pandemic to be over in a few months.’ This was one reason why repeating the success formula, the lockdown, no longer worked as well. The Norwegians, Finns and Danes who showed more patience and were more obedient were the exception, says Boin.

Reasoning with the police

The enforcement of coronavirus measures is closely related to a country’s culture. In the Netherlands enforcement has never been that strict and people are likely to reason with a police officer or community support officer. ‘We’re more into striking a bargain. That’s completely different just over the border in Belgium. You wouldn’t try to reason with a police officer there. And the same is true for countries like Italy, France and Spain, where the police are more militaristic and use more forceful tactics.’

University of Oxford Stringency Index

In its Stringency index the University of Oxford is tracking the stringency of the coronavirus measures taken by regimes around the world, such as a curfew and closing schools and shops.

Too little done to reach ethnic minorities

The crisis communication was lacking at times, and many governments had problems reaching ethnic minorities. ‘While we now know that there were relatively many Covid victims in this group, many western countries have found it very difficult to state this. Our recommendation is: science must be at the forefront in the fight against the virus and this entails knowing who the patients are and reflecting this in your communication.’

Female leaders

The governance experts note that countries with female leaders – New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Germany – tended to do well. Boin: ‘It could be that women communicate in a less authoritarian way and show more empathy. But we certainly don’t want to lump all female leaders together. It could also be that female leadership is perceived differently and citizens assume women will show more empathy.’ This is one reason why more research is needed in this area because numerous other factors play a part such a country’s culture and demography.

The book doesn’t pretend to provide one big answer to the ultimate question of which policy works best. It’s too soon to say. But Boin does want to emphasise one thing: ‘This pandemic is the ultimate stress test for our crisis systems. Because sooner or later these will have to respond to other huge crises such as climate change, a cybercrisis or terrorism.’

Text: Linda van Putten

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