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A ‘super-wicked’ policy problem: the cross-border challenges of responding to COVID-19

IPPO’s Northern Ireland project lead discusses why taking a trans-national approach to pandemic responses has proved so difficult – for the island of Ireland as elsewhere

Muiris MacCarthaigh

The COVID-19 pandemic comfortably meets the threshold of what public policy scholars refer to as a ‘super-wicked’ policy problem. These are understood as policy problems of a global nature that transcend organisational boundaries, elude obvious solutions, and involve uncertain and contested knowledge.

In common with other super-wicked problems, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has posed immediate and severe policy challenges (in this case to national health services) and its collateral impact has spread to virtually all other public policy arenas including social care, education and security. A huge variety of policy responses has been provoked, and considerable progress has been made to capture these responses in a meaningful way.

Like the super-wicked problem of climate change, the coronavirus pandemic is trans-national in nature, and demands unprecedented and swift levels of cooperation and coordination between and within states. Such cooperation has not been universally evident, however, and the United Nations has routinely raised concerns about this issue – most recently in the context of vaccine distribution and ‘vaccine nationalism’.  In due course, questions will have to be asked about why coordination of policy interventions at both the inter- and intra-state levels has been so poor and slow in the face of a global pandemic. 

The problem of coordination

To understand the problem of coordination, we may usefully draw on the distinction made by the political scientist Fritz Scharpf between positive and negative forms of coordination. In essence, negative coordination involves actors (such as national governments) being made cognisant of each others’ policies with a view to avoiding disagreement or even conflicts in their respective policy actions. As it involves minimal investment by the affected parties, negative coordination tends not to facilitate innovation or cohesion in policy responses. 

In contrast, positive coordination involves mutual adjustments by actors to produce better outcomes for all, and reduce negative consequences such as gaps in policy coverage.  Positive forms of coordination seek to maximise the efficacy of a policy or set of policies by ensuring that all involved parties are actively engaged to address the problem. The European Union has routinely encouraged member states to adopt this approach in their lockdown strategies, but across Europe (as with the United States) considerable variety remains. 

Indeed, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and national vaccination programmes, there have been numerous incidences of neither negative nor positive coordination, with governments instead adopting ‘go it alone’ strategies that could have damaging consequences for near-neighbouring states. The absence of global cooperation was noted early on in the pandemic, with two-thirds of international relations scholars ranking international cooperation on COVID-19 as not effective, and also far less effective than the response to the Ebola epidemic in 2013-16.

Closer to home, there are different COVID-19 policy measures in each of the five jurisdictions across the islands of Britain and Ireland. In the case of the latter, the issue of cross-border coronavirus coordination between the Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive has been a long-standing concern, with Dublin and Belfast adopting different policies and public advice either side of a 500-km border. This despite similar challenges being faced in terms of testing and tracing, enforcing social distancing measures, managing parallel surges in infection rates and testing for new variants of the virus.

Absence of an all-island approach

The general sensitivity of cross-border issues, particularly in the context of Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, has meant that an all-island approach to COVID-19 has proved elusive, with border regions having some of the highest incidences of infection across both jurisdictions. This has given rise to (ongoing) criticism about the absence of a co-ordinated, all-island approach to the pandemic. 

The first detected case of COVID-19 on the island of Ireland was in fact somebody returning from the then virus hotspot of northern Italy, who flew to Dublin and made their way across the border to Belfast without any checks. Almost a year since that first case, basic measures such as sharing relevant traveller data remain unresolved, even though data sharing is regarded by health experts as vital to tackling the pandemic. But this is not unique to COVID-19, and the sharing of health data across the Irish border has a problematic history, despite the similar underlying objectives of both systems. 

Given the ongoing need for social distancing measures, other possible cross-border measures might include common frameworks for increasing and reducing restrictions on public movement. There should also be scope for more cross-border collaborative research endeavours, which have flourished elsewhere in the world during the pandemic. These might include research on addressing the social impacts of COVID-19, including the effects on social inequalities, as there is currently a lack of comparable cross-border data by either the Irish Central Statistics Office or the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). 

There have been wonderful advances in vaccinations for SARS-CoV-2, as well as in the medical interventions to treat those infected with the virus. But we are, as yet, a long way off fully understanding and effectively addressing the social consequences of the pandemic, which continue to unfold in different ways in different contexts. Through the work of the new International Public Policy Observatory, our intention is to bring world-leading research to bear on these problems and to help improve coordination of responses by public sector organisations, NGOs and other stakeholders – both within states and across international borders.

Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at Queen’s University Belfast, and the IPPO project lead for Northern Ireland