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Why reading (good) policy papers beats watching Netflix during a pandemic.

By Philippe Mottaz - The Geneva Observer

March 25, 2021


Entertainment and distraction sure do help. But they’ll do more to enrich showbiz than to get us out of this mess. Drama, suspense, humor, comedy: we’re all riding a huge emotional roller coaster. But once the screen goes dark, we’re left with the same feeling that it’s getting harder by the day to get our head around the pandemic. Will dancing with the virus become our permanent condition for the foreseeable future? Perhaps, but ceding to despair is certainly not the answer.

While not its main purpose, paradoxically, the first virtue of the latest policy brief out of the Geneva Science Policy Interface Governance in the age of complexity: building resilience to Covid-19 and future pandemics is to act as a bit of a fear-buster. Just released online it provides us with a jargon-free mapping of the scale of the pandemic universe and its impact on the world.

The immediate effect of reading through this all-encompassing laundry-list of sorts is somewhat intellectually and psychologically soothing: whatever you may think, believe or experience is neatly laid out for you to sink your teeth in. Whatever your beliefs, you are not left out. We are all in there together. Mad about the inconsistencies of the last governmental measures? Fed-up with the abyssal digital incompetence evidenced by the contact tracing apps and vaccine certificate debacle? Restless, anxious and confused about your work-life balance now and in the future? Encouraged by the scientific feast represented by the development of a batch of vaccines in barely a year? Convinced that the pandemic has shown us innovative paths to build a sustainable world? The evidence is here for you to ponder. Reading these 23 pages left me empowered, with a nicely cleaned-up conceptual tool shed.

What world do we live in? What do we absolutely need to understand to end the pandemic, to recover from it and to prevent that a future one might have the same devasting consequences? Governance in the age of complexity offers answers to these interrogations.

“The dominant model of policy making which reduces complex challenges into separate and even smaller problems is ill-equipped to address systemic disruptions.”

The main point of the paper is to identify the nature of the COVID-19 crisis and, being a policy brief, to push concrete and actionable policy recommendations to prevent future pandemics by building resilient and eventually sustainable societies. Some grounds have obviously been covered elsewhere—an awful lot has already been written about the subject—but one of the distinguishing features of the GSPI’s paper is the leveraging of the input of 29 experts and actors of the Geneva ecosystem and beyond, coming from different disciplines. Under the guidance of Didier Wernli, the lead author, the transdisciplinary team use the "syndemics" concept developed by the medical anthropologist Merill Singer: The pandemic, they write in their opening explanatory pages, is “in fact a ‘sindemic,’ where the virus interacts with pre-existing vulnerabilities that are ultimately driven by large political, economic, social, and environmental processes, many of which transcend sectoral and national boundaries.”

For the authors, that understanding of “complex causality” is essential in preventing, reacting and recovering from systemic crisis. “The core message” they tell us, “is that leaders and policy-shapers who take a whole-of-society approach to navigate the complexity of this systemic crisis will be better placed to build resilient societies.” “Complex systems (…) consist of a large number of parts whose many interactions result in a collective behaviour that is more than the sum of those parts.” But, in one welcome subversive dimension of their paper, they also quickly identify that “the dominant model of policy making which reduces complex challenges into separate and even smaller problems is ill-equipped to address systemic disruptions.” The same ills, actually, extend beyond policy making: silo thinking also continues to plague part of academia, and business. They call for a new mindset in the governance of such crisis.

The dominant underlying theme of the GSPI’s brief is complexity and how to integrate it into our thinking. “A complexity lens must be applied to understand the drivers, the nature and impact of the current and future ‘sindemics.’” Not doing so, warn the authors, is to set us up for a repeat.

Complex systems have been with us for a while, ushered in by technological “progress” and modernisation. There existed a diffuse sense of undefined threats before the COVID-19. But Chernobyl, Bhopal, Fukushima or SARS, didn’t upend lives around the world. We were often able to dismiss them, they were contained, localized. But COVID-19 offers no such escape hatch.

Complexity is not only in the system, but in the issues we are suddenly and under duress forced to confront. To take a single example, we see it in the debates around the vaccines, where we have to take crash courses in epidemiology, biotechnology, IP rights, trade issues, supply-chains and post-Brexit EU-UK geopolitics to try to make sense of it all and not feel desperately lost. Add to that the realization that our generally accepted assumption that science equals truth lies in tatters.

Science is by nature a trial by error process, a discovery and a probing of what we ignore, not the representation of the known. But hearing contradicting scientific opinions every night on the news nevertheless makes it difficult not to feel dispossessed of the means to reassert control of our lives. Such papers can help us do so. Before our next streaming session.

An interview with Didier Wernli

Are you saying it took the COVID-19 pandemic to realize that everything is interdependent and connected and that only a transdisciplinary approach is needed to approach, understand and solve such crises?

I think that currently our societies have not fully understood how complex such crises are and have not fully integrated the need for a transdisciplinary approach to solving such complex problems. There is a lot of talk about it, but in reality, education, research, academia or governments are still fragmented. Silos are still too often the norm. For example, a lot has been written about public health and other disciplines since COVID-19, but so far transdisciplinary research is still rare. The same is true for our governments, with their different ministries, all the way down to their administration.

One down, a few more to go! ©Shutterstock

But we knew this was coming, we had been warned. Were we just in denial? Your paper can be read as an indictment, it points to a total failure of the system.

This is at the core of the problem: how do we organise and share knowledge to produce informed and sound public policies? The pandemic has demonstrated that it has not worked and that we must approach it differently. The final responsibility of devising and implementing public policy rests with the politicians, but these policies must be the result of a systemic, transdisciplinary approach, not a segmented one. Obviously, I am not thinking of a single ministry or department, but we need to put in place new mechanisms that foster a transdisciplinary culture. We need new forms of governance. That requires a new mindset.

Is it realistic to think that you can develop a new mindset and invent these new forms of governance in the midst of the crisis?

There is a tension between the need to manage the crisis on a day-to-day basis and the need to be creative in developing new models. But the pandemic forces us to confront the issues and thus creates opportunities. It is also the only moment when all energies are mobilized by and for the system and that is a driver for change.

Didier Wernli is a Senior Researcher at the Global Studies Institute of the University of Geneva. Didier is the Director of the Geneva Transformative Governance Lab. His research interests are on the global governance of infectious diseases.