Global Policy Tracking: Pandemic Provides Real-Time Political Science Experience



What proves most resistant in times of crisis: authoritarian governments, where a single strong leader can respond without the agitation of multiple authorities and public opinion? Or democracies, with their layers of bureaucracy and competing voices?

The coronavirus pandemic offers a unique opportunity to assess the response of different types of government to a global crisis, according to political science professor Olga Shvetsova. Other types of catastrophic events, such as wars and national disasters, affect some countries or regions and do not allow for global comparisons.

As the pandemic unfolded in the spring and summer, Shvetsova’s lab compiled a massive database comparing government policies related to the pandemic in 64 countries at the national and subnational levels. Data runs from January to May 2020 and is publicly available for researchers, while data collection is ongoing for the period between May and November.

“We are event driven to understand what has happened and what is happening, and to develop new understandings of how government and politicians work and respond to crises,” Shvetsova said of the collaborative lab.

The lab began collecting data on March 12. The policies followed by the database fall into several categories, including: international and national border closures, school closures, social gathering and social distancing restrictions, closures and curfews, medical isolation and quarantine, restriction of non-essential businesses and services, states of emergency and mandates requiring personal protective equipment.

In addition to political science professors and doctoral students in the department, the project has attracted colleagues from across the country and even around the world, including Canada, the UK and Russia. Undergraduate students have also joined the effort as research assistants. The lab is collaborative, with members participating in data collection, brainstorming, writing, and responding to inquiries during the peer review process.


The data has already prompted two articles, and more are in the works. “Institutional origins of responses to public health COVID-19 protection policies” will appear in a future issue of Review of political institutions and political economy, and takes a global look at the advent of pandemic-related policies. Posted in September by Canadian Public Policy / Policy Analysis, “The Policy Response to COVID-19 and the Rise of Subnational Governments” compares the advent of policies in Canada and the United States, both at the federal level and at the state / provincial level.

People may assume that a more centralized – even authoritarian – government would respond faster and more decisively to a crisis. But research shows the opposite: “messy” democratic countries with multiple levels of decision-making have put in place the most stringent initial policy responses to COVID-19.

Be aware of the high risk of error in receiving and processing shocking new information, and the great uncertainty about what needs to be done. If only a few agencies or decision-makers receive this information, the chances of them missing out on its importance or making the wrong call is higher than if multiple agencies and levels of government receive the same information from a range of sources. different data.

Rather than being a waste, government layoffs can function as a fail-safe.

“In systems science, error avoidance is of paramount importance. Redundancies allow you to avoid and survive the error, ”explained Shvetsova. “In fact, we had to fall back on those premises of systems science to theoretically deal with models of pandemic policy making. “

Enter the punitive nature of authoritarian regimes into the equation, and then you can see why local officials might be reluctant to push the response to the pandemic. Local officials who report an issue to their superiors can experience repercussions, as can those who in turn wield authority, she said. In these cases, the safest bet for officials would be to wait and see if the problem resolves on its own.

The response in democracies, however, can be influenced by partisan politics, particularly during election years. Having redundancies, such as different levels of government, helps mitigate the impact of these scenarios; where government at one level refuses to act, another can intervene.

The second article compares the response of two neighboring democratic countries with similar attributes. The United States and Canada are federations, which means they have fully invested governments not only at the national level, but at the subnational (state and province) level.

The two countries were surprisingly similar in terms of policies and level of government – the subnational, that is, the state or province – that created most of these policies, although the data does not hold up. compliance or enforcement account.

The United States stood out, however, in that governors played a major role in shaping COVID-19 public health policy. Governors are a highly politicized elected office, a factor that affects public reception along party lines. In Canada, the response has been more professionalized, coming from unelected public health authorities who work with provincial governments but in a professional and medical capacity; as a result, the perception of politicians as partisan seems to be less of a factor.

“Pandemic policy making is a truly global experience of how different types of government work. It’s a check on our resilience and the constitutional sources of that resilience, ”Shvetsova said of the ongoing research into the pandemic.

Look ahead

The lab will continue to collect data on the pandemic for as long as possible. The team hopes to make another round of data, from May to July, available by the end of the semester. Additional variables as well as other countries will also be added to the database.

As the pandemic unfolded, Shvetsova and her team observed that local officials, such as the Broome County executive, implemented pandemic policies early on, responding faster than even state governments. They would like to include data on these municipal responses in the database, but the scale of the effort makes it impossible without funding, Shvetsova said.

Currently, the lab is writing and publishing work on the incentives and disincentives for the pandemic response in democracies, examining the impact of government structure, political parties and how governments are held accountable. the health of their populations. More projects are likely to emerge as the data continues to accumulate.

In the long term, the coronavirus may offer a measure by which to judge the effectiveness of different styles of government in responding to the crisis. This would require reliable statistics on the number of cases and deaths, as well as strong mathematical models of the factors determining the spread and mortality.

“These are big questions. It’s fascinating to be at a time when we can contemplate assumptions and run regressions and actually glimpse the answers to these big questions, ”said Shvetsova.

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