Question: How does one explain the COVID-19 crisis from a governance perspective in an easily digestible and palatable manner?
Answer: Use a popular web series for parallelism.
This was what Dr. Kristoffer Berse did in his talk, “Crash Landing on ECQ: Crisis Leadership and Accountability in COVID-19 Philippines.” It was organized by the Master of Management Program of the UP Open University (UPOU) Faculty of Management and Development Studies in partnership with the Association of Schools of Public Administration in the Philippines, Inc. as part of UPOU’s “Let’s Talk It Over” online lecture series.
Berse is a faculty member of the UP Diliman National College of Public Administration and Governance. He is also the director for Research and Creative Work at the UP Resilience Institute and part of the UP COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team.
What constitutes a crisis? Threat, uncertainty, and urgency, Berse said. When South Korean heiress Yoon Se-ri finds herself hanging from a tree on the wrong side of the border, following a paragliding mishap, all three elements are present. All three elements are present in this COVID-19 pandemic as well. Both illustrate the threat to life and safety, the uncertainty of survival with or without injury and repercussion, and the urgency to deal with the threat.
He said there were four ways to respond to a threat: tolerate, terminate, treat, or transfer. One can just accept the losses due to the threat, do something to eliminate the threat, mitigate the impacts of the threat, or share the impacts of the threat. And the response could be a combination of those.
In the series, Se-ri removes the threat to her life and safety by deciding to get off the tree, and ends up in the arms of Ri Jeong-hyeok, captain of North Korea’s Special Police Force. Berse likened Se-ri to the Philippines wanting to eliminate the threat of COVID-19 and the landing in Jeong-hyeok’s arms as the resulting enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) that broke the fall. Minus the kilig factor, of course.
Delving deeper into the Philippine government’s response to COVID-19, Berse said it adopted a “whole of government” approach. He then zeroed in on one of the national action plan’s objectives. That is, to “prevent, contain, and/or eliminate the spread of COVID-19.”
“Is the ECQ effective?” Berse asked. The answer was not a simple yes or no. Using available data at the national level, he showed the UP COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team’s “Time-Varying Reproduction Number of the Philippines” graph as of May 5, 12:49am. In it, the average transmission over a period of time by infected individuals is a little over one.
For an epidemic to be under control it needs to be one or less. This means that a person with COVID-19 infects only one other person, at most. The higher the average transmission number, the greater the number of people an infected person transfers the disease to. So if the average transmission number is four, then one infected person has the capability to infect four other individuals.
While the national picture may look promising, Berse countered that the average transmission is not “uniform across the country.” When broken down into specific localities, some record higher or lower numbers than the national average.
“We must be careful,” he cautioned, because the pace of the disease spread varied across the country. Berse added that scientific projections were only as good as the best available data.
In dealing with the uncertainty of a crisis, there were three key leadership attributes, he said. One was sense-making, like Se-ri perhaps asking herself what was going on. The second was decision-making, where Jeong-hyeok may be asking himself what he should do. And the third was meaning-making, with Se-ri and Jeong-hyeok working together to establish their story.
Berse emphasized the importance of crisis communication in dealing with an uncertain situation. The government has been consistent, at the national and local levels, about “science-based decision-making.” Scientists and technical experts have played major roles in the COVID-19 crisis, again making use of best available data. He pointed out, however, that the country’s data management system “has yet to stabilize.”
There was also the issue of data access and ownership, where a balance must be struck between privacy and public safety. Accountability in missing or erroneous data must also be established. Berse also said that accuracy and the speed by which information is delivered affected the credibility of experts and government leaders. Empathy and openness resulted in trust.
On the matter of urgency, Berse enumerated three ways decisions “happen”: non-decision-making, decentralization, and improvisation. In the Philippines, the initial response was overly-cautious and slow, and downplayed the risk. In crisis decision-making, he said there were some key considerations such as acceptability, compatibility, cost effectiveness, environmental effects, individual freedom, organizational objectives, regulatory requirements, and risk creation.
How society emerges from a crisis will be influenced by answering what went wrong and what should be done, he explained. There may also be what he called the “crisis-induced blame games.” But the bottom line, he said, was the question of changing or maintaining the status quo. Citing Drennan and McConnell (2007), Berse showed four forms of post-crisis policy change: no change, symbolic gestures but no substantive change; instrumental refinement of existing policies/procedures; and realignment through new policies/goals/institutions.
No one has the answer to how the COVID-19 pandemic will exactly play out. Whether a relatively happy ending is in store, like Se-ri and Jeong-hyeok getting together, remains to be seen.