Decisive COVID-19 responses do not need to be authoritarian

Decisive COVID-19 responses do not need to be authoritarian

Transparency and accountability should be endemic to all decision-making, even in a pandemic, writes Alexandros Melidis.

Athens (Brussels Morning) Ever since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, policy development has been top-down and governments have assumed extraordinary powers, imposing stringent restrictions on civil liberties.

Worldwide lockdowns entailed social distancing and, therefore, curfews have become common variations on the global policy repertoire.

At first glance, under such extreme circumstances, our collective perception of democracy as a system characterised by transparency, consultation, consent and accountability is challenged.

On the one hand, demands for full disclosure and consultation reduces efficiency: if expect legislators and governments to spend their time in time- consuming consultation, we should expect a slower decision-making process. In this sense, recognising and articulating the interests of diverse stakeholders could come at the expense of public health, including the loss of life.

On the other hand, the effectiveness of anti-COVID-19 policies, such as adherence to lockdown measures and herd immunisation through mass vaccination, very much depends on public trust. This concern should reflect in the decision-making process.

Individual responsibility should not be taken for granted. The willingness of citizens to adhere to rules that limit simple civil liberties, such as enjoying a late-night stroll, is no small thing. Citizens’ trust must be earned through evidence-based and inclusive decision-making processes designed to increase public confidence and policy compliance.

Transparency works

Despite the overall global tendency to push accountability for decisions taken today in the future, there are some notable examples of how openness and participation can work as antidotes to boost citizens’ trust in pandemic-response measures.

As early as March 2020, Germany harnessed the creative power of collective intelligence and launched the virtual WiR Vs Virus hackathon. A federal government-sponsored social innovation process actively engaged civil society and thousands of citizens in an inclusive, participatory process to address the social challenge with new collaboratively crafted solutions and applications. The initial phase of this process boasts 147 projects and 51 solutions. Creatively translating administrative processes to open innovation methods with an iterative agile approach promoted a much-promising culture of multi-stakeholder collaboration.

During the first months of the pandemic, the startup community and citizens of Latvia volunteered their time and resources at the community level to organise an online bottom-up hackathon named HackForce. Expert mentors helped participants rapidly develop scalable solutions like 3D printed face shields for distribution in the Baltics.

Similarly, Estonia, a country internationally admired for its digital transformation achievements, took advantage of the top-notch experience of the Garage18 initiative to organise world-class hackathons. The President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, endorsed the final result of Zelos. This mobile application matched the demand of vulnerable groups for help with human assistance, connecting people at risk with volunteers via a call centre.

Beyond the above ad hoc responses in the form of hackathons, there are also examples of countries with well-rooted systems of inclusive health governance, which reap the benefits of public trust.

In England, for instance, the West Midlands Recovery coordination Group commissioned a citizens panel comprising a diverse regionally representative group of 36 people with the task to deliberate over individual experiences, evidence and expert opinions before devising proposals for a COVID-19 recovery plan.

Informed opinion

In Scotland, the COVID-19 decision-making framework introduced an online public engagement exercise. Citizens could voice their concerns about proposals for alternative policy actions on issues such as staying at home, visiting loved ones who live in different households and schools re-opening.

The South Australia Health initiative was founded on a 250-leaders forum, representing over 70 multicultural communities, aiming to explore and address their specific needs in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two examples of the role that citizen bodies can play in informing public policy on critical COVID-19 decisions come from France. The Nantes COVID-19 citizens assembly, established in November 2020, held numerous meetings and hearings with experts before submitting their proposals to elected representatives in March 2021. The response of the latter to this participatory process is expected in June 2021.

To invite the expression of a diverse set of voices to shape effective health crises policies, the city of Grenoble established the experimental consultative body named COVID-19 citizens convention. Participants include local representatives and citizens drawn randomly from volunteers and telephone lists. Their mission is to form a collective opinion and identify concerns and potential risks concerning the community’s point of view.

The brief collection of the above open, participatory responses to COVID-19 exemplifies that, in the age of the fourth industrial revolution, there is no excuse for any political leadership to confront its citizens as mere decision-making objects on the receiving end of policies developed behind closed doors. Instead of passively expecting citizens to follow policy updates on their screens and adjust to the next round of anti-COVID-19 measures, as social stakeholders, people can have an input and actively shape policy.