When it comes to making decisions on how to respond to COVID-19, who gets the final say and what do they base their decisions on? What are the parameters for choosing a task force to respond to the pandemic? These questions are ones that Jean-Benoit Falisse and his team at the University of Edinburgh are working on as the situation evolves.
Rapid Response Often Means Changes to Power Structures
In emergency situations, decisions are made fast and not necessarily with transparency. From closing businesses, enforcing social distancing rules, or implementing track and trace programmes to contain spread, the fight against COVID-19 means governments sometimes use emergency powers so they can act quickly to protect lives. These powers are often used to suspend regular laws around data privacy and civil rights temporarily to respond to the urgent need.
Clarity around the use of these kinds powers is crucial because citizens need to trust that those powers are being used wisely, since these responses often result in significant sacrifices by communities. Those groups committed to government accountability need to be able to track the extent and timeframe of those powers and who is authorised to make decisions, along with what justification was used to make these decisions.
Tracing this information can be very difficult in many countries, especially in when there aren’t strong national government watchdog agencies and organisations. There may also be political concerns for local organisations to document and publish the use of emergency powers. Finally, each country may have its own terminology, jurisprudence, and own political contexts to take into account, which can be a challenge for a non-expert to understand.
Mapping Governance Changes due to COVID-19
To address this data gap, researchers at Edinburgh University and partner institutions are mapping the use of emergency powers in the fight against COVID-19, and the broader changes in decision-making processes. As a non-partisan, independent organisation using ad hoc methodologies to capture, classify and track these governance changes, the governance map allows a variety of stakeholders to see what powers have been used.
Jean-Benoit Falisse leads the governance mapping project at the University of Edinburgh. He and his team relies upon verifiable information about how authorities and communities manage themselves and their resources under pressure. Not only were there questions about the good or bad management of a crisis situation like this, but also the flip side of the situation, not what are we doing about COVID-19, but what is the pandemic doing to the governance of our societies?
“It’s an ambitious goal,” says Falisse, “But we think it is worthwhile. It is information that people want and what they need to develop better responses to hold governments and other actors accountable for their actions.”
Protecting privacy while accessing data
One major area of analysis is the use of data. In March 2020, the world was scrambling to respond to the spreading pandemic of COVID-19. Data was being rapidly gathered to plot where the virus came from, how it travelled and where it was headed.
FCDO COVIDaction Support
Falisse and his team secured funding in May to gather data to map the ways in which governments can or will respond. With funding from COVIDaction, they are now able to continue this work and extend it to a new area — data governance and data surveillance.
At the heart of this data work is the need to provide civil rights advocates, governments, government watchdog organisations, and citizens with a database on government responses that is searchable and provides a global picture.
Tracing Decisions in Emergency
Creating the dataset itself is not without its challenges; it’s not just a matter of gathering a list of interventions or measures that have been outlined by governments. General details about government measures are relatively easy to collect because the information is public, but information about governance, the “who decides on what and how”, is much harder to get.
How are decisions made and who was involved?
“What we don’t know necessarily is how decisions were made, who was involved, what is behind the scenes,” Falisse explains. “What is the composition of the task forces or working groups that decide what needs to be done? That’s not information that is freely available in most countries and so it is never very clear who was appointed, how and in what capacity.”
An added complication is that these decisions have been made quickly in emergency situations. When a lot of people are getting sick rapidly, and government staff are overwhelmed by the crisis, following existing decision-making processes can be cumbersome and slow. The urgency of the situation can lead to reactive decisions; for example, emergency powers can grant authorities actual or perceived shortcuts around traditional accountability checks in decision-making.
As a result, tracking and documenting who and how these emergency decisions are made in the middle of the crisis is not a priority. In the rush to respond, how decisions were made gets lost, leading to a lack of transparency and accountability.
“I don’t think the two — the rush to respond and the lack of transparency — are necessarily linked, but this is the way it is operationalised or presented,” explains Falisse. “This discretionary response which seems, or is, justified because of the emergency, is urgent so we need to do things as quickly as possible, with few people involved in the decision-making. Which is an argument that seems to make sense, and why not? But what is interesting is that it also means that very little information is available about the processes. I think this is one reason why it has been so hard to get the data and to get the data we wanted.”
Falisse also thinks the problems are related to more than just the emergency response to COVID-19. “It’s the shaping of the governance of society generally speaking, not only of public health”, he says. “It means that some people may not want to share certain types of information.”
Using Human Networks to Identify these Decisions
To get over these hurdles, the project works with people who (have contacts that) can find out what is going on and then access the documents that prove the process. So while you may think that data science is all about scraping websites and gazing into spreadsheets, it’s as much about what you know as who you know.
It’s easy to assume that data turns up in handy chunks that are ready to read, but a further issue of mapping governance is that the information you most need is not always well defined. “We’re interested in challenges to the governance of the COVID-19 response, what is society doing? What are they not doing?” says Falisse. “This is not always easy to follow and track, there is no single repository where you can see all the protests, all the court cases, all the pamphlets and opinion pieces that have been produced relating to a certain type of COVID-19 governance. It can be relatively tedious work, trying to figure out what’s going on in which country and that again requires people who are quite familiar with those contexts.”
Quantifying data risks
“The privacy concerns are many and I could speak for a long time on this.”
The types of information that are potentially useful to respond to the pandemic are also areas of risk. Personal data that people are sharing with health system actors or government actors includes information about who they are, where they are, where they may have contracted the virus and their health status — all of which is shared in good faith. But that faith can be sorely tested if data safety protocols are not in place.
The risks are many, “this type of information that has been shared in good faith can either be misused by the government — used for other purposes to monitor minority groups or individuals for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 or it gets sold to or shared with a third party without consent,” says Falisse. Of course, we also have cases where “data is collected without consent at all.”
These concerns are not new to the world of data processing but these problems can be amplified by pandemic conditions. With the need to move quickly and the desire to make decisions based on data, the checks and balances of good data protocols may fall by the wayside and there are fewer checks on what governments and health systems are doing.
“There are situations where the regulation is poor or non-existent,” explains Falisse. “But it’s not all down to regulations, it’s also about enforcement. If a country has excellent regulations and laws about data privacy and surveillance, but they are not applied, the courts are not doing their work, police are not doing their work, law enforcement are not doing their work and citizens have no way to make these regulations effective. In the context of COVID-19 this is exacerbated.”
Emergent patterns and observations
While the work started in March, there have already been points of interest emerging from the data. For instance, pandemic governance issues are similar between low, middle income and high income groups and indeed between the so-called Global North and Global South. “It’s not because you’re a country in the Global South that your issues in governance are terribly different from the ones western Europe would have for instance,” says Falisse. “The transparency or lack thereof in the appointment of COVID-19 taskforce members or issues around how to respond to legitimate concerns from civil society — is seen across countries and income levels.”
Producing regulation and enforcing it are also proving to be very different. “Something we have learned is to be extremely careful with official text, official regulation and laws, because they only give us part of the picture and this can be quite misleading.” Falisse explains. “There’s a difference between producing a new regulation and enforcing it. Regulation legislation that has the same name, across countries doesn’t necessarily have the same implications, nor does it reflect the same governance or the same issues in terms of democratic governance.”
Another interesting element to emerge is the positioning of expertise in decision-making. Falisse says that the response is almost always built around a very small group of people often not elected, with a lot of power going directly to the top levels of the state and government.
“It’s not to say that the health system is not involved,” he says. “It is involved in the response, but it is not front and centre in the decision-making process. They’re not the ones calling the shots so to speak.”
The impact of this organisational choice is clear, processes that are built into institutions to ensure the inclusion of minority groups are simply not activated because the way of making decisions is different. “On topics such as gender for instance, in a lot of countries you have what is called gender mainstreaming, it’s the idea that for every piece of legislation for every measure, there will be a process to make sure that it’s not the default male position that prevails — so there are checks and balances from a gender perspective,” Falisse explains. “What we see is that with COVID-19, in the crisis, these mechanisms are either bypassed or ignored.”
One pandemic is not like the other
There are 25 countries being mapped by this project at the moment. Mostly the focus is on COVID-19 governance and the team hopes to add more countries through this year with a wider view that will also include information on data surveillance and privacy. “The more countries we have, the better, but we’re trying to work on the quality of the data too, not just the quantity,” says Falisse.
So mapping information like this during a global pandemic, can emergent patterns and ideas be applied to future scenarios? Falisse offers caution in delivering lessons just yet. “I think it depends on the kind of pandemic. If the pandemic is caused by a well known pathogen (i.e, something treatable and preventable), it’s very different from the type of pandemic we have now which has, at least in part, many unknown and emerging factors.“
“What we do know is that the effect of the pandemic is not only about how many people may die from it; it’s also about what it does to society and how societies emerge from it. There are clearly some practices that are better for democracy, better for an efficient and inclusive governance, than others. What we’ve seen in our mapping is that some countries are thinking ahead to what will happen with institutions during the pandemic, after the pandemic and whether countries are reacting in a fashion that may ultimately damage democracy.”