Five principles to guide the COVID-19 policy response: don’t overlook the long-term impact of decisions made now

By David Donaldson

Monday March 30, 2020


Concerned about the speed at which governments are being forced to respond, the Sydney Policy Lab has developed five principles to guide responses to COVID-19.

The coronavirus crisis is fast-moving and requires quick responses from policymakers.

Marc Stears

But it’s important to keep in mind that decisions made now may have long-term consequences, so be careful, warns Marc Stears, director of Sydney University’s Policy Lab.

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“If you look historically, these intense moments of crisis have led to quite significant shifts in policy, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally — most obviously in the creation of Europe’s welfare state in the Second World War,” says Stears, who was previously professor of political theory at Oxford and chief executive of UK think tank the New Economics Foundation.

“An immediate crisis moment needs an immediate crisis response, but it also needs an eye on what path dependencies you might be beginning to create.”

Concerned about the speed at which governments are being forced to respond, the Sydney Policy Lab has developed five principles to guide responses to COVID-19.

“It is crucial that as policymakers make the key decisions over the next few weeks and months that they are guided by the right principles. Otherwise decisions will be made which might be extremely difficult to row back from and which might render the situation worse both in the short and the longer term,” the document reads.

The five principles are:

  1. Fair and equal access to healthcare — especially for already vulnerable groups
  2. Shared economic sacrifice — including wage protection, sufficient unemployment benefits, and anti-profiteering legislation
  3. Enhancing social relationships — ensuring those most at risk of harm caused by self-isolation are protected
  4. Protecting democracy, rights and liberties — holding government accountable if needed in a time of extreme measures
  5. Building a sustainable future — preparing for the future by also rectifying the mistakes of the past

The principles were developed with input from academic and practitioner colleagues both local and international, and was informed by a similar effort at Harvard.

Wage subsidies and ministers for loneliness

The biggest policy gap in Australia at the moment is the lack of a wage subsidy or employment retention scheme similar to those in Europe, says Stears — though reports over the weekend indicate the government is soon to introduce a wage subsidy.

“It’s the idea that for the recovery to be swift and effective you have to have people already in jobs, you can’t send them into unemployment and then hope to recruit them back into the workforce,” he tells The Mandarin.

“So you’ve got to be able to help employers keep workers on, and they’ve decided to do that in Europe largely through wage subsidy schemes. In the UK, the government will underwrite 80% of people’s wages, give the employers that money to keep people in work. That seems really important to me.”

The damage wreaked by economic distress on mental health should be factored into the cost-benefit considerations on measures like wage subsidies and employment retention schemes, he adds.

He also suggests we should look at giving someone responsibility for ensuring social connectedness — whether a ministerial or bureaucratic position.

“Some governments around the world have already appointed ministers for loneliness and social connection, even before COVID,” he says.

Britain has been a leader on social connection, appointing a minister for loneliness in 2018, following the establishment of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. It is now trying to harness individuals’ goodwill to tackle the problem too.

“In the UK, 500,000 people have signed up as volunteers for the NHS in the past couple of days, through the NHS program the government launched. That’s a fantastic initiative, and if they can make those folks work, it could really help tackle isolation and loneliness, especially amongst older people.”

Stears also urges public servants to look to other countries for policy ideas.

“It’s just remarkable how this challenge is confronting so many different polities at exactly the same moment,” he says.

“A few countries are one or two weeks ahead of the curve and others one or two weeks behind, but essentially all the established democracies are grappling with these same issues. That must be an opportunity for international policy learning. If we can’t learn from each other at this moment, then we’re never going to do it.”

Five principles in more detail

The full text of the five principles from the original Sydney Uni document is below.

1. Fair and equal access to healthcare: Public health systems around the world are coming under astonishing stress, with heroic work being done everywhere by those on the frontline. As pressures mount, there may also be calls in coming days to prioritise needs. It is crucial to remember, therefore, that everyone deserves the best treatment possible in these difficult times independent of their personal circumstances. Particular attention must be given to maintaining access to healthcare for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the homeless, those with uncertain migration status, the elderly and disabled and assisting those groups and others to do what is required to keep themselves and their families well. Furthermore, although effective triage is a vital part of any health response, it is also crucial to design systems that avoid discrimination and prejudice in every possible way during these processes.

2. Shared economic sacrifice: The economic and social harm potentially wreaked by the virus knows virtually no equal in modern Australia. It is crucial as we struggle to protect lives and livelihoods in the months ahead that the inevitable sacrifices that are required are distributed fairly across the whole community. Those on the frontline of the struggle against the virus and its consequences require immediate support. It is also not acceptable that people working in particular sectors, such as retail, hospitality and the arts, are expected to carry a significant part of the burden of the economic shock. As such, we urge government to investigate further measures akin to those taken in the UK and other parts of Europe which aim to protect wages and keep unemployment low. We also need mechanisms that will allow every sector of the economy — private, public and not-for-profit — to play their part. Similarly, all efforts must be taken to guard against profiteering and to ensure that nobody unfairly benefits from the ongoing crisis.

3. Enhancing social relationships: For reasons of public health, people must maintain strict social distance and even isolate within their own homes at this time. Nonetheless, it is well established that many people will suffer significant difficulty in so doing. The mental health dangers implicit in social isolation and loneliness are well-recognised and those who live in abusive households or at personal risk of domestic violence are particularly vulnerable at this time. It is vital that public policy addresses itself quickly to these concerns, outlining methods of maintaining social relationships as far as is compatible with the public health fight against the virus. It is crucial in this regard that Australia tackles the deep digital divide, which allows some people to access social connection through technology while others are left effectively cut off. It is important too that charities and other civil society organisations are protected, not least because they remain closer to people experiencing hardship than most government agencies. The rapidly expanding grassroots mutual aid movement also deserves all the support that it requires.

4. Protecting democracy, rights and liberties: Periods of shock of the kind that we are now going through often lead to calls for emergency measures and the tempering of long-held political conventions that protect democratic accountability and civil liberties. That is entirely understandable, but it is also dangerous and the risks of over-reach are real. It is vital that measures are taken to ensure that short-term restrictions on accountability and liberties remain short-term and are only deployed where absolutely necessary. This can be achieved by maintaining strict democratic scrutiny throughout the crisis period and by legislating for the time-limited nature of individual restrictions clearly and effectively. It is vital too that Australia maintains its tradition of transparency, free press and debate throughout this period and its commitment to truth over falsehood.

5. Building a sustainable future: The immediate crisis is intense, but it will pass. Australia needs to prepare for the aftermath and to do so with urgency. This means building programs of social and economic renewal that can overcome the immediate negative impact of the virus and at the same time turn attention to tackling some of the chronic challenges that were already besetting us as a nation before the virus hit. Programs for economic recovery, for example, should place the challenges of both climate change and systemic inequalities at their heart. This is a moment for the divisions between different Australians to reduce rather than increase. We encourage all policymakers to use this moment as an opportunity to set a better course for the future.

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