C Gopinath

Post-Covid decision-making is best left to local authorities

C Gopinath | Updated on May 19, 2020

Local administrators know what activities take place within their domain and how their people will react

Just as nations struggled to decide the appropriate response to Covid-19, many are now struggling with the appropriate return to normality. The tussle between those who focus on health and those who focus on economic activity, with politicians playing the referee, will determine the steps that will be taken. Many voices from the street are clear: “If the choice is between dying from the virus or hunger, I’d choose the former”.

The US dithered between making decisions at the centre and leaving it to states. The President, trying to be decisive, went before cameras daily to give the good and bad news about what his administration was doing to deal with the crisis. He drew a national audience, given that epidemiologists also present. With elections in November, he loved the face time! Reporters got into the spirit and questioned him about the number of face masks that had been ordered, and whether they were being delayed. Is that the level of micromanagement we expect from the President?

Delaware, a tiny state that you may inadvertently drive through without noticing, had its police stop vehicles with out-of-state license plates. Georgia will allow nail salons to open, with new rules. In Massachusetts, the Governor in an effort to gradually reopen activity has laid out rules for playing golf. Wait in your vehicle till tee-off time, no golf carts on the course, maintain social distance, wear face masks, get back into the cart and go home as soon as your game is over. You would think two-year-olds play golf.

Nations and states who impose restrictions and mandate rules of behaviour are at best trying out their dictatorial power or want to be seen ‘doing the right thing’. The basket of tools that all states were playing with had the same contents: lockdown, social distancing, preventing gatherings of large numbers, increasing healthcare capacity, testing, social tracing and governmental financial assistance. The combination of tools tried out depended on technological and financial resources and their population’s characteristics, including the extent of trust people had in government. But who can decide what is essential and non-essential activity in the community?

Europe seems to do it differently. Many nations watch the reproduction number ‘R’ — measuring the number of people contracting the virus from one person. If below one, then the spread is slowing and opening can begin. Others have relied on multiple daily indicators. These are best measured locally. Some are fine with a higher R if it can be locally managed.

Germany had an interesting mix of actions. Businesses and public transport continued to work. Large firms with operations in China learned from the Chinese protocols and implemented them. These included reduced physical contact, face masks, regular disinfecting, etc. In Germany, workers’ representatives sit on committees that make management decisions. Individual states will decide on re-opening gyms and concert halls.

Sweden did not go for a national lockdown. There were no restrictions on manufacturing and service businesses. The government issued guidelines about limiting travel and maintaining social distancing, and given the high levels of trust in society, people often went beyond it. Restaurants were open even as commercial activity slowed down.

Clearly, one lesson is emerging from global experience. Since the virus does not respect national borders, local governance is best to deal with the issues. Centralised decision-making works for setting policy and funnelling financial resources. The rest should be pushed down as far as possible. Local administrators know what activities take place within their domain and how their people will react. They know what hurts and what doesn’t. Make them accountable.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on May 19, 2020

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