Three lessons in crisis governance for the age of coronavirus

People queue to get a free refill of hand sanitiser at a mall , as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Singapore, April 1, 2020.

Queuing for free sanitiser refills in Singapore Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

Ola G. El-Taliawi
Postdoctoral Fellow, Faculty of Public Affairs, Carleton University
Zeger van der Wal
Associate Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore
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  • The coronavirus pandemic poses significant challenges to political leaders - and time is of the essence.
  • Here are three general principles that can help inform better decision-making.

The coronavirus has been wreaking havoc across the globe since the start of the year. We haven’t witnessed a pandemic of this magnitude since the Spanish Flu a century ago.

That is not necessarily because this disease will be more deadly, although it could be. Nobody really knows. Rather, the interconnected nature of our globalized society and economy, and the constant proliferation of information on a multitude of media platforms, have quickly morphed a public health event into a global political, economic, psychological and social crisis of epic proportions.

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Throughout 2020, and arguably beyond, governments will be facing the challenge of responding effectively to an ever-unfolding event with many 'unknown unknowns'. A major risk is that political and administrative leaders disassociate, engage in policy paralysis, or fail to fully recognize the threat until it leads to irreversible damage, which is, unfortunately, exactly how some major countries seem to have responded.

As a transboundary crisis, COVID-19 represents a significant challenge to public leaders and their policy advisors, who are expected to perform key functions like taking decisive action, handling overwhelming amounts of data, making critical decisions regarding resource allocations, and coordinating with stakeholders. These managerial activities are challenging enough without a global crisis to contend with. In the current context, they are further complicated by the ambiguous nature of rapidly metamorphosing events, which can make the links between cause and consequence unclear.

Timely response is of the essence. It marks the difference between containing a crisis and allowing it to spill over and completely overwhelm public organizations’ ability to function effectively. Unintended consequences may occur, requiring a degree of improvisation beyond the standard capacity of even the most skilled bureaucracies, as rules that apply to routine operations quickly become ill-suited and outdated.

No easy answers exist. And it will be a while before we can comprehensively evaluate and compare the crisis governance strategies of individual countries. However, the substantial body of research and best practice evidence on crisis management and governance may provide some useful lessons at this point in time. Here, we highlight three general mechanisms that public leaders attempting to steer through the crisis in the months ahead may take into account - and we illustrate their relevance with examples of their current use by governments.

First of all, effective communication is a key pillar of crisis governance. As policies are put together on-the-go to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, governments have to scramble to contain the crisis while communicating with the public in real-time. Communicating under conditions of uncertainty is characterized by constant tensions and dilemmas. Do we give full disclosure or focus on expressing optimism and reassurance? Do we share highly technical information and aim to explain epidemiological dynamics in laymen’s terms, or do we construct frames and narratives that are easy to understand, repeat and reinforce? Being transparent and accurate in relaying information; preparing the public for what is coming next; and expressing a degree of empathy in communicating policies can go a long way in ensuring effective crisis communications.

Thus far, Singapore seems to have been fairly successful at containing the spread of the virus and the number of fatalities, while allowing citizens, school children and businesses to largely continue life as usual. Singapore’s use of social media and digital applications, such as direct messaging and 'track-and-trace' via Whatsapp, as well as its anticipatory yet measured public communication outings, including daily updates to the public, have helped to contain the virus' spread and have been heralded by observers, including the World Health Organization, as the "gold standard response".

Total number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore, January-April 2020
Total number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore, January-April 2020 Image: Statista

Second, adopting a whole-of-society approach is of particular importance in this crisis. Citizens are asked to actively take part in containment measures including social distancing, self-quarantining and community support, for considerable yet unknown periods of time. A whole-of-society approach engages individuals, families, religious institutions, civil society, the private sector, media and others to support national efforts in order for them to be effective, and to prevent major law and order issues that exacerbate existing pressures on public sector capacity. All stakeholders need to be on board for these strategies to work. Moreover, to ensure society does not come to a complete stop during long periods of self-quarantine or lockdown, active engagement of employers, universities and schools is crucial in promoting remote work, homeschooling and online education efforts. As an example, the Canadian Prime Minister’s adoption of the slogan 'Team Canada Effort' aims to harness social and community support in managing the crisis.

Finally, implementing evidence-based strategies based on historical as well as current data is paramount, rather than acting based on what is politically expedient. Strategies rooted in validated evidence ensure the optimal use of resources and help to design probable scenarios. Partnering with research labs and institutes on a global scale may help governments to adopt sound measures that reduce the threat of unintended consequences. Using reputable evidence as a key criterion when implementing exceptional measures may also help garner public support. For instance, a key study conducted by Imperial College London scholars helped change the course of the UK and US government’s policy on COVID-19, possibly saving thousands of lives.

While COVID-19 represents a significant threat, every crisis also presents opportunities for sustained innovation and learning. How successfully this crisis is managed will depend on how well each government is able to face it head-on and bring society on board, while coordinating effectively with stakeholders. Social systems are by nature adaptive, and this crisis presents a learning opportunity for all of us. This is a test for our governance systems, and it is safe to say our collective response will shape the future for years to come.

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