Skip to content

COVID-19 crisis future fault lines: managing the conflicts we have to have

8 April 2020

News and media



By Paul ‘t Hart, Utrecht University

There was an awkward moment a week or so ago in the Netherlands. A Dutch television celebrity debating the Corona crisis asked a rhetorical question: ‘Why are we disrupting our entire economy, sinking millions of people into unemployment, poverty, domestic tensions, psychological stress and depression, in order to save one per cent of the population, mostly 80-plus elderly or people with bad lifestyles, many of whom have a limited life expectancy anyway?’

Social media responses were divided. The mainstream commentariat denounced his cavalier demeanour. Meanwhile, in government buildings, public servants and politicians could not help but begin to debate versions of that very question, knowing full well that the politics of the COVID-19-induced distribution of risk and pain were going to be on every government’s agenda. The tough questions of who gets what, when and how, and how to balance illness, death, disruption, unemployment, dislocation, will soon be on every government’s agenda.

It has become standard form to speak about the early 21st century as the era of ‘VUCA’: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Quite a mouthful, but it sounds vaguely appropriate and leaders nod pensively when you present them with this characterisation of our times. COVID-19 has put an end to that. Responding to, and moving on from, the widening, deepening and cascading mega-crisis will continue to present policymakers, professionals, politicians and stakeholders with stark choices. The initial posture of many governments to base their policy decisions on the ‘advice of our medical experts’ has already become unsustainable.

COVID-19 is now not ‘just’ a pandemic, it is a supply-chain, macro-economic, social and geopolitical crisis. Yes, it presents us with staggering technical challenges of mustering surge capacity in the health system, ensuring business continuity in critical sectors, delivering massive tax relief and income support programs in real-time, while discovering effective techniques for halting the spread of the disease and eventually eradicating it.

It also presents us with even more staggering adaptive challenges that involve addressing the gap between what we thought the world we were living in was like and what the world has become and working out how we should manage this new reality. There are scarcities of critical resources, there are economies going off cliffs, there is a slow-motion tsunami of secondary suffering heading towards us, and there is the accelerating demise of the United States as the dominant global power. Governments, markets and communities everywhere must come to terms with loss, grief, radical uncertainty, loss of control and value conflicts. If ever there was VUCA writ large, this is it.

At the same time, like any other crisis, COVID-19 also unleashes human ingenuity, fast-tracks, improvisation and experimentation. It provides new justifications for stepping up hitherto stalemated reforms and hoped-for societal transformations. A smart government will harness that energy.

The buck stops here, now: critical decisions need to be made in the health care system, the social sector, in fiscal and monetary policy, in microeconomic reform, in tax administration, in foreign policy, in education and child care, in housing, in border control and immigration – literally everywhere. Much of it must happen at breakneck speed – and yet in ways that are sensible, smart, balanced, accountable and legitimate.

Dealing with these complex, interlinked issues and managing the fault lines exposed and exacerbated by crises is what we have politics for. The COVID-19 crisis will test the mettle of our political leaders and the capability of our public institutions, such as parliament and the public service, to work through the tragic choices and intense conflicts that confront us.

In doing so, they cannot use parts of their regular repertoires for tackling tough challenges: the usual pacing and timing of work cannot be followed when time is at a premium, with the clock ticking on vulnerable bodies, economies, families, and states. Likewise, conducting inquiries and consultations is off the agenda, and besides the entire world of think tanks, academia and journalism are already churning out the biggest pile of analysis, evaluation and policy proposals devoted to one event in human history. Delegation to non-majoritarian bodies such as regulators and courts is also difficult, although these may still play important roles in due course.

As a society, we will be judged on how well we ‘do politics’ at this critical time. So, what policy conundrums, political conflicts and organisational tensions are there to be worked through? Here is a provisional inventory of current and foreseeable hot issues.

Tragic choices in and for the health and care systems

When do you step in, or stand back while life-and-death decisions are being made in hospitals, general practices, nursing homes, aged care facilities and shelters? Among these choices are: the distribution of ICU-beds/ventilators; the selection of eligible patients for life-saving treatment; the deployment of critical staff in cure and care;) the purchasing and distribution of protective equipment; and the supply and distribution of medicines.

Pragmatism versus due process in high-speed policymaking

Where do you give a license to ‘do whatever it takes, now’ and where do you insist on compliance with good governance principles, institutional routines and professional codes?

Maintaining broad lockdowns versus targeted risk-reduction measures:

How do you balance the fast-growing economic and social pain caused by the former, versus the ethical challenges and practical difficulties in implementing the latter?

Managing economic upheaval

From the GFC we have learned that designing, implementing, coordinating and legitimising mega-stimulus packages, monetary and tax measures present treasuries, central banks, tax agencies and other economic policy actors with huge challenges. How do they decide how much money to spend? How do they get it where it counts, when it counts? How do they design delivery to dodge the known risks of delayed impact, market distortions, rorts and fraud? How do they set incentives for the economy to come off the government’s tap as quickly as possible?

Going it alone versus learning from other jurisdictions

As infection and casualty rates appear to differ markedly across and within countries, the pressure mounts to imitate the approaches taken by jurisdictions with the best numbers, notwithstanding significant institutional, cultural and economic differences between them.

National versus international regimes of crisis response

What aspects of health, economic and border control responses are countries willing to coordinate in (let alone delegate to) intergovernmental and transnational institutions, such as the European Union, the IMF and the WHO? International policy alignment may improve the effectiveness and fairness, of responses, but can be arduous to negotiate and politically costly back home.

Deciding what matters

In the face of a plethora of issues needing urgent resolution, how should policymakers devote their attention, political capital and operational resources across the many theatres of this transboundary, cascading mega-crisis? The primary focus is still public health, but economic health is beginning to rival it. Secondary impacts – spikes in homelessness, depression, family violence, alcohol and substance abuse – are not far behind. How can policymakers open and run the conversation about where efforts should go, what losses we are prepared to carry and what a fair distribution of pain could look like, let alone be brought about?

What expertise to mobilise, listen to and trust?

How do governments deal with the inevitable proliferation of, and disagreement between, experts both within and across sectoral domains and academic disciplines? Both economic and medical modelers are currently unable to produce feasible models of ‘end games’ to the crisis – ones that incorporate the complex timelines, levels of uncertainty and transboundary interaction effects. The implication is that making strategic calls about lockdowns, track-and-trace and other options is closer to policy gambling than to ‘following expert advice’.

Expanding versus checking executive power

To achieve the omelette of optimal COVID-19 containment, some leaders and governments have not thought twice about breaking the eggs of privacy (deploying track-and-trace apps, appropriating and distributing patient records), accountable government (assuming emergency powers, in some cases potentially indefinitely) and other pillars of democratic governance. In the new ‘AC’ (after COVID-19) era, what liberties are societies prepared to suspend and what checks and balances are they prepared to relax in the name of safety and security – all in the knowledge that there are new mega-crises behind the horizon?

Defining accountability

In our contemporary world, fatalistic acceptance of misfortune is not on. Whenever there is disruption, disorder and suffering at greater rates than normal, accountability needs to be exacted, blame needs to be apportioned and promises to forestall repetition need to be made. We have evolved a range of formal and informal means of investigating what happened, forming views on how and why it happened, and judging who was at fault in allowing it to happen. The ‘it’ here refers to the onset of the original disturbance (assessed as an unintended consequence of political choices, regulatory postures, managerial practices), as well as its eventual scale, duration and impact (assessed as a function of levels of crisis preparedness and quality of crisis responses).

When designed with purpose and integrity, rendering accountability for crises can be a dignified and reflective process, but in today’s highly strung political climate it takes very little for it to degenerate into unedifying blame games or ritual displays of hypocrisy.

Restoration or reform

Once the health system can cope with the influx of patients and the number of deaths begins to shrink, the crisis experience will have revealed much about our societies, our institutions, our systems for governing risk, our values, beliefs and bonds. What will be the thrust of the lessons we choose to draw from the self-examination that will follow? Do we choose to ‘go back to normal’, with better risk management and quick response capacity in place, or do we set out to transform important swathes of our beliefs, priorities, policies, institutions and alliances? Are we going to ‘bring back the state’, and well and truly ‘ditch neo-liberalism’? Are we going to rediscover and re-appreciate the caring professions, the social sector, the thing that Margaret Thatcher (following Friedrich Hayek) insisted did not exist – society, community and organic solidarity? Or are we going to try and ‘harness markets to better serve public purposes’?

Governments around the world face these uncomfortable and yet unavoidable questions. How they choose to address them will define their legacies: will ‘COVID-19’ be handled with poise, decency and resilience, or be allowed to spawn bitterness, instability and decline? And while the herds slowly get immune against the virus, in the public arena the culling of elites and institutions that cannot or will not move with the times will unfold. Their records before and during the crisis will be interrogated. Reputations will be made and broken. Blame will be dispensed. Windows of opportunity will be spotted. COVID-19 will not just be responded to – it will be, and must be, exploited.

Paul ‘t Hart is a Professor of Public Administration at Utrecht University and Associate Dean of the Netherlands School of Public Administration in The Hague. He resumed both positions in mid-2011, after spending five years as Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. 

Professor ‘t Hart has contributed to ANZSOG’s  Leading in a crisis  series  which features the best research and thinking on crisis leadership.The series explores crisis management, leadership and communications, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, and puts global expertise in the hands of public managers in Australia and New Zealand.

Find out more about  ANZSOG’s Leadership in a crisis series  webpage.