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The public’s right to know: communication and governance responses to COVID-19
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a test for democracies, demanding a good level of cooperation and communication among national governments, local authorities, civil society, researchers and frontline workers. Previous bulletins of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have already underscored the effective management of public health emergencies needs transparent and accurate data for effective and timely decision-making. Without this approach, important decisions that can save lives might direct resources to the wrong places, cause confusion and disinformation and prevent effective responses to the pandemic.
The successful dissemination of risk-related information needs to be transparent to promote correct advice and guidance. Currently, it often stands as the most important available tool in managing potential health threats.
Considering that fighting disinformation and false information about the coronavirus pandemic is a serious challenge, most governments have committed to take measured policy responses with practical steps towards transparent public communication. But how does this translate into substantial good governance actions essential to successfully face Covid-19? I have looked into the WHO’s Covid-19 Preparedness and Response Progress Reports (1st February to 30th June 2020) to respond to this question.
The first lesson from the WHO’s preparedness and response report in relation to risk communication is that governments in both rich and poor countries were not prepared to prevent, handle and manage the pandemic. The overall experience, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, was that governments had to elaborate a range of legal, administrative and policy measures due to the seriousness and rapid spread of the virus.
Openness, transparency and accountability - three essential elements of democratic governance - have been recalled as the key words for risk communication and community engagement in responding to Covid-19. It means that at a time when governments around the world scrambled to adapt to the evolution of the health crisis, good governance values stand as part of a coherent strategy to address the pandemic and it is critical to ensure cooperation and communication between health authorities, as well as raise awareness about Covid-19 spread. Accurate, timely and readily available information ensure compliance with lockdown measures and prevent the spread of new cases.
As an example, the WHO’s report monitors the proportion of countries and territories that have communicated Covid-19 prevention and preparedness messages to the population. This number has increased from 43% on 1st March 2020 to 99% on 30th June. This data suggests that dedicated coordination structures have improved the collaboration among key stakeholders at all levels to maximise resources and information.
The second lesson is that surveillance strategies for Covid-19 were central to curb the spread of Covid-19 and guide the ongoing implementation of control measures. In the particular context of the sanitary crisis, surveillance refers to the monitoring of the spread of coronavirus to establish a pattern that will guide future decisions. WHO established a global surveillance system with national governments and research institutes to gather standard data at global, regional and country levels.
This surveillance information is key for governments to justify decision made, especially the ones that involve temporary legislation, rights-restricting policies and expansion of contact-tracing technologies. It should be noticed these are essential measures for infection prevention and control, but they are legitimate only if they are proportional and temporary.
Some of the measures implemented have exposed the anti-democratic practices and injustice embedded in our current democratic systems. Countries with trends towards authoritarianism tend to perform worse in sharing accurate and timely data. They usually avoid data scrutiny because they have either minimised or delayed pandemic responses.
Some examples: Brazil’s health ministry tried to remove Covid-19 data to hide rising death tolls, Hungary’s Viktor Orban used the pandemic to obtain extra powers to govern indefinitely by decree; while acts of protest and civic resistance have been curtailed and even criminalised by temporary lockdown and quarantine measures in the US and the UK. What is more, the privacy implications of contacting tracing apps raises questions about sufficient data security and hacking risks.
The third and final lesson is the significance of community engagement in Covid-19 responses. While it has been established that multi-level governance and decentralisation of competences can better equip authorities at the local levels to tackle the pandemic crises, the WHO report highlights the benefits of coordinated approaches that maximize the sharing of resources, information and expertise at all administrative levels.
The focus on community engagement can amplify community insights and allow regular citizens to influence decision-making. According to the WHO report, the proportion of countries and territories that have a Covid-19 community engagement plan increased from 19% in early March 2020 to 85% in late June. This improvement indicates even though lockdown and quarantine rules have withered the space for substantial citizen participation in decision-making, active citizen participation still possible.
There are relevant opportunities at the local levels to further understand the needs of specific groups by exploring community participation approaches which can both collaborate with solutions to the crisis and reinforce democratic participation. A clear plan of action from governments are key to the success of rapid responses but the direct involvement of the public can complement government actions to stop the spread of coronavirus. Actions such as facilitating remote policy meetings for decision-makers, enabling the access of citizens to accurate, timely information and better coordination and cooperation with clear roles for stakeholders is highly relevant for success in tackling the pandemic.
The coronavirus crisis has brought to light special measures that can be implemented and democratic values uphold. Going forward, countries that sustain the principles of good governance in the management of the sanitary crisis are more likely to win this battle with greater public support.