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Has COVID-19 Brought Together Society, Science and Policy?

Almost a year and a half has passed since the beginning of the global sanitary crisis, a period that will remain in the history as the one in which the world has fought back and forth between chaos and complexity. Politicians, public policy specialists and scientists have all aimed to contribute to the management of an unprecedented pandemic crisis. Rewinding this period since the first human cases of COVID-19 were identified in Wuhan, China, we can see many pitfalls with the world deeply delving in uncertainty while the prospects still look dooming. This is a sanitary crisis whose magnitude cannot be compared to any other public health challenges that science, public policy and the society have witnessed in the last century. The past year has proved that we do not have good practices to follow and rely on, and we are not getting anywhere close to managing the diffusion of the virus. And this is because we have missed the nexus between society, science and policy.

Here is how this has happened. Science and policy have always had a love-hate relation, yet during the last year they seem to have rediscovered the importance of building on each other’s strengths. On the other side, policymakers have tried and most times failed to rebuild social trust in the political solutions they have proposed and reinforced, from full and partial lockdowns to new measures on social gatherings and access to healthcare. Nevertheless, science, policy and the society are yet to find a real nexus ensuring a constructive and sustainable dialogue. If this nexus is not built, this will in turn have long term consequences that will make the management of the crisis even more challenging. Some specific limitations we have witnessed because of this missing nexus are:

1. Even if optimists have claimed a change in paradigm, the solutions that have been proposed so far are not as ambitious as this threat would require, nor as successful as the urgency of a global pandemic would urge. In the 20th century, states failed to sense the changes in the challenges of the international security environment. They kept fighting with traditional tools against asymmetric threats, terrorism and guerrillas, preparing themselves for a confrontation with a different enemy than the one they were actually facing on the ground. In the same way we are now witnessing a competition with countries, pharmaceutical companies and universities all trying to win a marathon with no finishing line. History proved states to be wrong in the 20th century, yet we are seeing the same mistakes being repeated.

2. The solutions that have been proposed have stigmatised behaviours that used to be socially acceptable without really offering full access to scientific research on how changes in our social interactions will have an impact in the long – term. Besides discussing the short – term measures, science and policy need to regain social trust that there is a vision on how the changes required in our daily life will affect our future welfare.

3. If no common interests are built with science, policy and society fighting for the same objectives, we will continue experiencing the free rider syndrome that will keep us apart from an optimised scenario in which the three types of actors can have a real impact by building together solutions instead of confronting each other.

The second half of 2021 needs to bring clarity around how the new normality will look like, but to achieve this, it will for sure need to build on this nexus, and besides bringing science into policy, we need to see the citizen and social trust regaining the central place within policy solutions.

Written by Dr. Ileana Daniela Serban

Dr. Ileana Daniela Serban is Lecturer in Public Policy at King's College London.


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