Pandemic, governance and the collective construction of the future

The COVID-19 crisis in Latin America is not only a health and socioeconomic crisis but also a governance crisis

September 9, 2020


This crisis creates a possibility not only for a new normal but for better normality, but this will not happen spontaneously.


The COVID-19 pandemic that is affecting the world has deepened in recent weeks in Latin America. The health, humanitarian, and economic aspects of this crisis, widely publicized have no historical precedent. Solving and rebuilding will take time and a lot of collective effort. However, as with the effects of the virus in organisms with pre-existing medical conditions, our societies are affected by pre-pandemic structural weaknesses: high inequality, fragmented social contracts, lean productivity and growth, low confidence in public institutions, and fiscal weakness. That is why the COVID-19 crisis in Latin America is not only a health and socio-economic crisis but also a governance crisis. A systemic shock that has exacerbated pre-existing structural conditions and, without a doubt, will deepen them if there is no determined and effective public action. As a systemic crisis, it also requires a systemic solution. This is what many of us have called the need for a new "social contract."

Governance is the creation of conditions for social advancement through agreements between diverse social actors and where the Government, in its exercise of delegated authority, must enjoy legitimacy and deliver results for all. The crisis we are experiencing is the product of a systemic shock that has shown the deficiencies of the health system (lack of universal coverage, equipment, and capacities to carry out tests and tracing), the education system (inequalities in access to quality education and connectivity manifested in the inability to provide viable alternatives to continue with school programs during the pandemic), the fiscal systems (very restricted fiscal capacity) and social protection systems (very limited in their capacity for insurance and redistribution). Are we going to be able to learn from these lessons and renew our will to build more productive, inclusive, and resilient societies?

Latin America has been misnamed as a middle-income region, but has not managed to consolidate middle-class societies. Our societies are highly vulnerable and historically unequal. This is manifested throughout the territory, through gender, groups excluded by their ethnic and racial origin or sexual preference, and of course in terms of their access and their ability to generate income and wealth. If we speak of a social contract, we must start from the fact that a condition that every contract requires to be valid is that it is between equals and that it is a manifestation of freedom. A new social contract requires, then, that the actors in this pact have a right to participate in the collective redesign of rules and policies. Here, technocracy adds but is not enough. It is not only about choosing which is the best new agreement, but also what is the agreement in which everyone is recognized.

Social and digital media channels represent a huge opportunity as instruments in this reconstruction. We must, however, address the three fallacies generated by digitizing: first, the illusion that access to information implies access to validated and useful knowledge; second, the false notion that popularity alone is a source of legitimacy; third, the illusion that digital identity and participation in social networks can replace policy action. The legitimation process of common visions such as political parties, social movements, civil society expressions, and even the public debates are caught in the immediacy of one tweet. There is a crisis of political representation that we must resolve if we aspire to reconstruct and rebuild our societies with greater strength to confront the new crises that will come. Governance, the existence of the conditions for processing tensions and reaching agreements without conflict, may soon be at stake. Authoritarian temptations and easy questioning of the democratic achievements of the last decades abound in the public debate.

This processing of tensions and the questioning about the rules of the game, already evident in Latin America before the current crisis, will not disappear with the arrival of a vaccine and not even with an economic reactivation. They will require processes of national dialogues and work to prepare a strengthened institutional framework. The countries have realized,  for example,  the enormous social value of having an universal and high quality health system, education, and basic social protection, systems for which the markets have not given suitable solutions, and that therefore require different governance designs, with the state in the driver's seat.

But this governance crisis also presents multiple opportunities to improve the region's structural problems and build a more inclusive, sustainable, prosperous, and resilient society. For this reason, our organizations sponsor and contribute to various initiatives to support countries in the region in these talks. That is why the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) began days ago, a broad consultation with different actors to rethink our governance program to provide more effective support to the region in fulfillment of our mandate. On the other hand, in the field of international governance, the SEGIB (Secretaria General Iberoamericana) has reinforced the commitment for further cooperation as the basis for greater regional integration and has expanded the space for intergovernmental and interagency dialogue and coordination (not competition) in pursuit of greater global collaboration, an essential element if we want a reasonable response to this crisis.

The key to a positive way out of this situation will not only be to initiate a debate on specific policies, but also to rethink systemically our problems to build cohesive and effective societies in the achievement of collective objectives. For this, it will be necessary to present options based on the knowledge generated at the global level, reach basic common agreements, promote conditions for national, international, public, and private financing, rebuild trust between institutions and citizens, and improve policy coordination in and between countries. Many problems transcend borders and require everyone's cooperation. Strong multilateralism is essential for a sustainable recovery.

This crisis creates a possibility not only for a new normal but for a better normal, but this will not happen spontaneously. We must call for a collective action that defines and builds a notion of what constitutes the public sphere, that summons the State but that goes beyond the state because it involves all societal actors in the construction of what is common to all of us, in the creation of collectives goods, and strengthened structures for prosperity, sustainability, and inclusion. We have an opportunity, as Octavio Paz would say, to deserve what we dream of.

* This blog was originally published on El País.