7 ways COVID-19 is now a governance crisis

October 29, 2020

The pandemic is triggering the first setback in human development indicators since 1990. In Latin America and the Caribbean, it is projected that close to 30 million people will fall into poverty. Photo: UNDP El Salvador

The world has changed. What started as a one-dimensional health crisis quickly turned into a socio-economic, humanitarian, and political crisis around the world. Latin America and the Caribbean is no exception and has rather become the epicenter of the pandemic. The latest WHO situation reports detail that the region accounts for almost a third of the cases and deaths confirmed by COVID-19.

The pandemic is triggering the first setback in human development indicators since 1990. In Latin America and the Caribbean, it is projected that close to 30 million people will fall into poverty, the number of unemployed will increase to more than 44 million, the fall in productivity and the economic decline is so deep that it is estimated that it will be until 2023 when activity will recover to the levels of 2019. The IMF projects a fall in productivity in the region three times greater than in other emerging regions. In short, the acute health crisis in this region is accompanied by economic and social decline unmatched in the developing world.

Although the virus affects all societies regardless of levels of human development or political preference, its consequences are harsher for the most vulnerable. Resilience needs a new name as people's identities are being challenged due to lack of employment, the vulnerable are pushed into poverty and larger segments of the population increase distrust of governments and others, an explosive mix in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The crisis is no longer one-dimensional or unique to health. COVID-19 will not go away, we need to learn to live with the virus. While the cure for COVID-19 on an individual level is a vaccine or medical treatment; the solution to the impacts of the crisis and the problems generated are related to politics and governance in at least three dimensions. First, ill political decisions accompanied by a fragile political divide. Second, chronic underinvestment in public health fueled by political ideologies about what the role of the state is. And third, the patronage rules that have chronically and systematically widened the divide between rich and poor, by ideologies of the left or right.

Never in our lives has so much attention been paid to how governments behave, respond, and provide solutions. For most societies, it is no longer about reactivation or recovery, but about rebuilding. The world has changed and, therefore, the governance responses to the crisis must be different if the expectation is to build a “new normal better”.

The time has come for governance to change the rules of the game to reduce grotesque inequalities and create equal opportunities for all citizens. The good news is that in Latin America and the Caribbean the population is changing its opinion towards greater support to the statement that "incomes should be more equitable" (see figure). This occurs at a juncture where existing inequalities are deepening and creating new ones, and asymmetries and weaknesses in the social, political, fiscal, and economic systems are being exposed.

From the perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean, it is clear today that this is a governance crisis and here are seven ways this crisis can be turned into an opportunity:

1.      Reversing the tensions to the necessary measures implemented in most of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to address the health crisis. This through inclusive governance practices and permanent political dialogues between political and economic actors that allow balancing fiscal adjustments, state-society relations, citizen security and even human rights and justice.

2.      Ensuring due balance and independence of powers of the State in health responses. That is, to safeguard that emergency powers validate the principles of legality, proportionality and temporality and minimize cuts in civic and political freedoms.

3.      Safeguarding the compliance and implementation of democratic practices. Some elections have been carried out under difficult conditions (St. Kitts and Nevis, Suriname, Dominican Republic, for example) while others have been postponed, as is the case in Bolivia and the constitutional referendum in Chile. This tends to accentuate divisions and increase the risks of political violence.

4.      Emphasizing the importance of information and data, both on the health situation and on the socio-economic impacts of the crisis. This implies public and private campaigns for attention and communication on the opportunities and positive experiences to reduce the high degrees of anxiety and fear in the public in the face of uncertainty about the depth and duration of the crisis.

5.      Strengthening controls on abuse of authority and corruption and ensuring transparency is not quarantined. States of emergency have also presented opportunities for corruption in the rush to public procurement. The urgency has caused interruptions and an increase in prices, mainly for medical equipment, which means redoubling efforts of oversight, auditing, and social control.

6.      Fostering evidence-based debates, respecting differences of opinion and building consensus. There has been an exponential increase in misinformation and disinformation, mainly motivated by politically vested interests. This fuels the anxieties and fears of the general population and puts pressure on governments to lead and find innovative solutions.

7.      Strengthening the implementation of the 2030 Agenda with emphasis on Sustainable Development Goal 16 and its dimensions of peace, justice and inclusiveness that aim to leave no one behind. This implies redoubling efforts on the part of governments, private sector and citizens to build agreements for peaceful coexistence and greater capacity for sustainable recovery to improve normality.

At UNDP in Latin America and the Caribbean we recognize that the path to sustainable development and the achievement of the 2030 Agenda is like a road with three lanes: productivity, inclusion, and resilience. This road is built and paved with effective governance. The quality of this pavement has never been more necessary and urgent to achieve a sustainable recovery to the measures implemented by COVID-19.

* Originally published on September 5, 2020 at the 3500 Million Blog of El País