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Professor Scott Cunningham, University of Strathclyde

21 September 2020, 8:04 UTC Share

Government strategies and international response to the Coronavirus

In this piece I’ll draw upon international comparisons to better understand how different nations have addressed the challenges of coronavirus.

I’ll also take a look at the timing of various policy responses over the course of the outbreak. This provides insight about the course of the pandemic, and may give some insight into what might come next. Ideally we could enable policy learning by adopting the best practices from around the world. But local conditions are varied, and it is difficult to create international benchmarks for evaluation.

Many of these questions can be addressed using increasingly plentiful sources of open data. Oxford University has assembled the Coronavirus Government Response Tracker. This is a comprehensive open data source that categorises all government responses, across the countries of the world, and by time. Since the team first started tracking responses at the start of the year, there have been more than 60 thousand daily entries by country.

The Coronavirus Government Response Tracker monitors thirteen different kinds of tactics in handling the coronavirus. These tactics include containment policies, economic policies, and health system interventions. There are investment and finance policies in the database, I’ll set these tactics aside for now because they’re different in kind from the other tactics. By looking across nations, and over the course of time, it is possible to review which of these policies are used together to develop unique national epidemic strategies.

Most countries assemble a baseline strategy that combines restrictions on school and workplace attendance, and on holding public events. But there are four distinct kinds of national strategy that builds on this basic approach. One strategy expands lockdowns, limiting even public gatherings. Yet another strategy limits public mobility. This requires putting limits to internal movement inside the country. It requires stay-at-home restrictions, and limits the use of public transportation. A third strategy utilises information technology to create public information campaigns. This is also often a very internationally focused strategy that limits international mobility. This is accompanied with an extensive emphasis on testing and tracing. The fourth policy provides debt relief and income assistance.

Not all policies are used in combination by all nations. Part of these differences possibly lie in the respective course of the disease in different nations. Nations may also differ in their service delivery capabilities, and in making comprehensive tracing and testing procedures. Such comparisons reveal systematic differences in the policy preferences of nations.
The United Kingdom’s strategy, rather more than other nations, has been to limit the mobility of its citizens. There is no ready comparison in strategy with European nations. Comparisons have been drawn with the United States, particularly given the severity of the outbreak in both nations. Nonetheless the United States has adopted a much more conventional strategy than the UK.

Most countries of the world ramped up a whole package of policy responses in early March. In contrast to the other policies income and debt-relief support measures where applied were applied early, and remain comparatively steady in their use. This likely depends on the course of the epidemic, as well as public fatigue regarding lockdown. Vigilance remains high, with only a gradual slacking off of most epidemic responses. Despite this the stay-at-home rules are falling off more rapidly than other policies.

The incidence of the disease is complex. Successful policies are only one of the many reasons why some nations have been impacted less than others. Climate, demography, culture, and previous exposure to coronaviruses have all been named as possible sources of systematic international difference. The measured adoption of appropriate policy is one way to evaluate government performance. This requires that the substantial differences in the circumstances of countries are also considered.

Scott Cunningham is a professor of public policy at the University of Strathclyde. He researches model-based and evidence-based decision-making in cities and in infrastructure. As part of the University’s Policy@Strathclyde network, he directs new educational programs at the interface of policy, technology and society.

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