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Enhancing Policy-making During an Emergency

The responses to the pandemic have not only sparked a plethora of discussions both within and outside the world of science, but have required science to step up to the challenge. Indeed, throughout the crisis, many politicians have talked about the importance of “following the science” when implementing COVID-19 policy. However, there has sometimes been a disconnect between government policy and the fast-evolving scientific evidence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unequal responses and unequal impacts in countries and around the world. Though science has uncovered much about the virus and made extraordinary and unprecedented progress on vaccine and treatment development, there is still great uncertainty as the pandemic continues to evolve. Initiatives such as the International Science Council’s (ISC) COVID-19 Scenarios Project are reflective of the need to outline how an optimistic and fair end to the pandemic might be achieved for the global community. On the 7 July, to consider this issue and foster discussion, the ISC and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) held a side-event at the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the topic of “Enhancing Policy-making During an Emergency: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic”. The event gave way to a lively discussion between panelists Peter Piot, Christiane Woopen, Elizabeth Jelin, Claudio Struchiner and Inès Hassan. The event was led by Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Disaster Risk Reduction. This blog will consider some of the important points discussed during the event.

Watch the full event :

Science: a pillar of democracy and humanity

During the course of the discussion, panelists agreed that while science-advice in policy-making has rarely been so prominent and that scientists are currently at the top of “trust barometers”, there is also considerable strength in populist movements fueling science skepticism and denialism. Claudio Struchiner pointed to his experience in Brazil, seeing the country’s situation as a “testing site on how far deliberate science denialism can push the system before it collapses” and brought up how in that context “science communication merges with political activism in the defense of the democratic system”, making the case that “science is a pillar of democracy”. Christiane Woopen built upon what Struchiner said, indicating that “an attack on science is an attack on humanity”, since science aiming to teach about the world and shape it accordingly is an anthropological constant for human beings.

Uncertainty at all levels

Nonetheless, panelists were adamant when explaining that defending science is not the same as pretending to have “the one solution”. For instance, Elizabeth Jelin was quick to mention the “constant and persistent uncertainty at all levels” we have faced during this crisis. In this spirit, it was also argued that more transparency is required on the limitations of scientific recommendations, as scientists need to keep in mind they are dealing with highly imperfect tools.

The uncertainty associated with future predictions is very high, and the tools we have are incomplete in incorporating all the dimensions at stake. The difficulty in expressing uncertainties regarding the future and conciliating conflicting recommendations is the big challenge that we see ahead of us as science advisers.”

– Claudio Struchiner

Advocating for an interdisciplinary holistic approach

Such uncertainty points to the need for flexibility and rapid responses to shifting conditions. One solution may be to consider a question through different lenses. Indeed, Christiane Woopen noted that science is broader than the natural or life sciences, it is also the social sciences. Woopen argued that the pandemic was managed with too narrow a view, and that this should be an important takeaway from the past 18 months. It was indeed a rare occurrence during pandemic management and policy-making for a holistic interdisciplinary approach to be taken. She also expressed that in the places where this did occur, communication to the general population was better. Since “Following the science” can also be a restrictive expression, we should remember that every science has value in terms of the question you ask, the methods you use and the answers you’re striving for. Peter Piot agreed with Woopen, stating that without a comprehensive approach we will not be able to prevent and manage future disasters.

We’re entering an age of pandemics, partly because we cannot seem to live in harmony with nature. Since we are degrading our environment and biodiversity, infections are going to become more frequent. We need this comprehensive approach or things might get far worse. Dealing with disasters is crucial, yes, but we also need to prevent them. We need to build up resilience.”

– Peter Piot

Inequalities as obstacles to societal resilience

A critical part of the discussion was focused on inequalities and how we cannot move forward effectively without addressing them. Christiane Woopen pointed out a “shaming increase” of social injustice and inequalities. Indeed, there are more super-rich than ever before, but millions of people in poverty. And yet global wealth increased during the pandemic. Elizabeth Jelin also mentioned that different social conditions cannot be addressed with one “rigid overarching policy”. Latin America is a good example of policies trying to reach the masses, but with different social contexts making it very difficult. As lockdown policies were designed for family-based models, Jelin argues in favor of “nuanced and differentiated policies”, such as getting “community collective organizations” involved. Peter Piot also underlined the importance of considering what hasn’t worked during pandemic management, and points to the fact that if inequalities are ignored there will be a lack of resilience for entire sectors in society.

What does ‘wash your hands’ mean when one quarter of the world’s population has no running water? What does ‘stay at home’ mean for people who have no home or where life is not organized around households?

– Elizabeth Jelin

The importance of involving civil society

As such, civil society also plays an important role. Peter Piot presented that the more democratic a system is, the more it has systems, institutions and equality as a principle, the better we will be equipped to deal with pandemics. Discussions with citizens, including them in the processes and bringing them together with decision-makers and scientists is key to have good pandemic management and preparedness. Following Piot, Jelin expressed that there is a diversity of actors and scales of action to the contribution of evidence-based knowledge. She also highlighted the fundamental notion of care, that should become even more significant as time goes on. To her, civil society runs from large global organizations to grassroot organizations in charge of soup kitchens. Jelin advocates for one of two models of involving civil society. She would like to see us moving away from the model where “these organizations are seen as intermediaries to spread the word and enact policies so as to reach difficult populations at a low cost”, meaning a cost efficiency way of seeing civil society, since the costs of the State and of welfare measures are shrunk in consequence. She rather thinks it’s important to recognize that these organizations “have a significant stock of knowledges and that they, in tandem with social scientists, understand how people operate in everyday life and should be implicated in knowledge co-production”. Christiane Woopen went on by describing how important it is to foster institutional citizen councils at different governance levels. They have better ideas and potentially more ideas, as they have different views from those who govern professionally.

We can use digital platforms to foster participation of civil society. These possibilities of participation and of co-production have to be strengthened. For example, in terms of vaccine access, why don’t we have mobile vaccination teams that would be able to go where vaccine access is limited? Those teams would know the areas and would thus be valuable to support policy-makers.”

– Christiane Woopen

Towards a reorganization of global governance

If one thing came out of this discussion it is that no country can solve this alone, as we are dealing with a global issue. Thus, Peter Piot brought up the need for global cooperation and a reorganization of global governance to fight against the rampant inequalities and favor resilience. Piot said that the World Health Organization (WHO) needs to be strengthened at the head-of-State level, as the recent independent panel advises. Science advice also needs to be strengthened while maintaining its independence. Though we do have vaccines, the downside is that not everyone has access, so it would seem that an “end-to-end plan” is necessary, in order for the product of innovation to benefit the whole world. Woopen also underlined the need for “stronger international structures, procedures, contracts and multi-level governance to deal with the shameful phenomena that the pandemic brought to light”.

Key messages for an optimistic outcome

When asked to consider a key message for policy-makers to find a pathway for a realistically optimistic scenario for the world, the panelists each presented outcomes that the global community would rejoice to see. Claudio Struchiner stressed the point of understanding how interconnected we are, especially in terms of environmental issues. Both Struchiner and Elizabeth Jelin insisted that “we have no other way forward but to try and overcome the concentration of wealth and aim at a more homogeneous world”. Jelin expressed that this pandemic has been a reminder of how the rich get richer and how the poor get poorer, and how there is a limit to resilience and resources. The key would be to consider health issues and the pandemic as part of a much larger concern on inequalities in the world and what the wealthier segments of humanity are doing to the environment.

Christiane Woopen imagines a treaty on pandemics at the United Nations level, where institutions are “built up to monitor, prepare for and manage a pandemic”. She also suggests having international financing instruments for vaccine distribution and for essential medical resources. On his end, Piot agreed with the other panelists but stressed the need for taking a long-term view when taking acute decisions and therefore underlined the importance of the scenario work being done by organizations such as the International Science Council. He ended his remarks by saying “Never miss a good crisis!”, presenting it as an opportunity to reduce vulnerabilities and inequalities since consensus during a crisis is easier to achieve for actions, policies and funding, as issues are striking.

Wrapping up the session, Mami Mizutori concluded that we still have a long way to go. She mentioned once more the importance of elements brought up by fellow panelists, such as inequalities, education, the different kinds of science and building up an equitable, green and resilient recovery.

“I’ve had this job for three years and it’s been very difficult – and still is – to convince people of the importance of prevention and its benefit. The silver lining, we think, is that there is more awareness about the importance of prevention, but whether it becomes a reality is really the test […] In the meantime, let’s make sure, each of us, that we are responsible for the outcome in how we behave.”

– Mami Mizutori
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