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Policy-making and possibilities amid coronavirus: a few brief reflections

Post by Benjamin Rigby

Much has been said and written about SARS-CoV-2 (novel coronavirus) and its associated disease COVID-19. Like many commentators, I too am no expert. Indeed, for my own sanity I have tried to minimise the extent to which I read into the crisis. Nevertheless, I wanted to reflect on three points that have occurred to me over recent days.


1. The Government is ‘guided’ by the science

During the last few years as a fledgling researcher in the field of public health and policy, my eyes have been opened to how the government machine operates. While acknowledging more can be done on specific actions (see David Byrne’s recent post), I subscribe to a largely positive view of the Government’s overarching coronavirus response, one that has attempted to balance scientific evidence with the social acceptability of the necessary control measures. I have little time for the numerous politically charged conspiracy theories, many generated by those who ought to know far better.

Paul Cairney reminds us that at the best of times policy-making takes place in a complex system. The current pandemic is moving rapidly and the complexity of the issue is significant, as Castellani points out in a recent blog series. In such circumstances where rationality meets its bounds, scientific evidence does not speak for itself, nor can policy-makers consider all relevant evidence, which is now being generated at break-neck speed (see below). Their attention is pulled from issue to issue. Evidence-based policy-making becomes only one legitimate principle of good governance“pragmatism and consensus-building, combining science advice with public values, improving policy delivery by generating ‘ownership’ of policy among key stakeholders [i.e. you and I],” become equally valid. The Government cannot do everything, and they cannot do it all at once. At least consider this before questioning why any given piece of evidence or advice is not followed.

2. Rapid research and decision-making

Apparently, fake news items often start with anecdotes from a family member or friend ‘who is a doctor in a hospital…’ However, I assure you that my sister is a palliative care doctor in South Wales, and my brother and sister-in-law are a GP practice manager and a GP respectively, working in Cheshire. All three have noted that staff are being empowered to take swift decisions, and with much of the red tape now cut, things are getting done quicker than ever. This made me think of two things. First, the ‘make-do’ effectiveness required amid times of crisis (see Byrne’s aforementioned blog), and second, the translation of research into policy and practice.

“The answer is 17 years.” This is the time frame commonly quoted for translational research. However, there has been a concerted global effort to find a coronavirus vaccine in record time and produce a corpus of accessible research (some of it in real-time) to inform decision-makers’ responses to the pandemic (e.g. Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-based Medicine has published over 30 reviews in 14 days). This makes me wonder why we cannot orientate our research efforts into rapid practical outputs more often, rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of our respective disciplines. Clearly, this raises ethical considerations, and existing safeguards and rigour serve an important purpose. Nevertheless, with so many academic institutions fixated on the impact of their research, this is an opportunity to reflect on how research has been produced urgently in a manner that decision-makers need in rapidly changing policy and practice systems.



3. Has the policy window opened for physical activity?

My research examines physical activity policy-making in complex systems. For some time, advocates of increased population physical activity levels have bemoaned their lack of policy attention. On 23rd March 2020 physical activity became central to one of the most significant policy decisions made by a UK government since World War II, whereby daily physical activity is encouraged and is one of only four legitimate reasons to leave the house while the nation is locked down.

The unlikely coming together of problem (e.g. an epidemic and physical activity), policies (e.g. the lock down) and politics streams (e.g. emergency legislative powers) has presented a possible policy window, whereby physical activity is on the Government agenda. Physical activity and public health researchers and other advocates must be ready to mobilise their creative solutions to help: i) activate a nation that is otherwise housebound; and ii) reposition active lifestyles as part of any strategy to rebuild our country and mitigate against such tragic circumstances in future. Lest we forget that the association between inactivity and noncommunicable diseases, such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease (those same such conditions that significantly increase the risk of severe COVID-19 disease), is the fourth leading risk factor for all-cause mortality globally. Four years ago, Das and Horton proclaimed that it was high time for policy-makers to take physical activity more seriously and for people to take it regularly.” Perhaps, just perhaps, coronavirus has offered the stimulus.

#policy #complexity #coronavirus #COVID19 #StayInWorkOut #StayHomeSaveLives


Benjamin Rigby is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Durham University. He also coordinates this blog for the Health and Social Theory research group.

Views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the authors and other contributors. They do not necessarily represent those of Durham University, its Department of Sociology, nor all members of the Health and Social Theory research group.


Image credits: futurism.com/ Rose et al.

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