By Sharifullah Baig
Aga Khan University
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced nations across the globe to devise novel public policies to deal with the unprecedented challenge of the century. Despite the numerous efforts of new-fangled policy development and their implementations, the economies were devastating jolted and hundreds and thousands of precious lives were lost in most of these pandemic hit countries. The focus of intellectual discourses, political debates and media coverage in these countries mostly remained on the merits and demerits of the conditional public policies and their modalities of implementation. Much has been said and written in almost all of the countries for and against the public policies initiated and implemented by their current governments to fight this COVID-19 pandemic. However, the public behavior aspect, which plays a decisive role for the success and failure of a public policy, received a very little attention.
Pakistan is a typical example in which the government declared a pandemic and initiated several restrictive public policies and implemented them to fight and control the damages inflected by the COVID-19 virus. However, our public behavior emerged into a collection of uneven and sporadic reactions failing to come up with a unified response to this COVID-19. The public behavior started gathering around various interesting emotional models of leadership at several levels. The first level of dichotomy emerged between accepting and rejecting this pandemic as a reality. One section of our society sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly refused to accept this pandemic as a reality attaching it to different conspiracy theories. Hence, the section of the society which is influenced by this emotional model is inclined to continue their usual way of life without any interruptions because they believed that COVID-19 is not a reality.
The section of our society which accepted COVID-19 as a reality developed numerous sub emotional models of leadership to respond to this pandemic. For example, people living in the mountainous parts of the country started believing that they are better fit and have a better immune system: therefore, they do not need to follow stricter standard operating procedures. Another, emotional model emerged among the working class of the population who believed that since their childhood they have followed a taught life schedule and their body is familiar to a physical hardship routine: therefore, this COVID-19 will have no implications for their health and wellbeing. According to them, this is a disease for rich people! A section of our society developed a naturalist emotional leadership model of response, believing that this COVID-19 is part of the natural process, controlled by divine forces. Therefore, we do not need to interfere by taking special precautionary measures and leaving it to the natural processes. A youth model emerged which believed that this pandemic has no implications for the health of young people: therefore, this section of the society need not to follow a precautionary measure and are free to be peripatetic in the society. Another emotional model of leadership emerged in our elite class where people started to believe that they should follow a strict social distancing from the working class because these people go for work every day in the market and are carriers of the virus. However, the parties and invitations in their own circles is not an issue! An extra ordinary emotional leadership model emerged in which people were overwhelmed by the pandemic all the time sitting in front of the television to get national and international updates on COVID-19, imposing extremely complicated self-developed standard operating procedures for their families and living a fearful life. These are some example, you may add many more to this list.
The bottom-line is that people influenced by these emotional models tend to avoid and ignore the precautionary measures for spreading the pandemic. They have their own mid-set and ways to believe and behave in these unusual circumstances, least bothered by the public policies, guidelines, rules and directives given by the government as the executive pillar of the state to handle the crisis. I called them leadership models because these notions were introduced by individuals or groups of individuals who influenced certain sections of the society to follow. I call them emotional models because none of the above models can be grounded or justified in any of the plethora of present-day medical research. This odd social condition raises the following critical questions for public policy and their implementation in the country.
- Where does our public policy stand in the midst of this scattered behavior of the population no matter how meticulously these policies are designed?
- Can a public policy be enforced without taking account of the public behavior dynamics of the population?
- Can a public policy be designed and implemented in accordance with the emotional models of people, believing that the policies are for people and their aspirations must be reflected?
- Do we need a long term investment in our civic education so that our national narratives are powerful enough to subjugate our personal and group emotional models of perceiving and behaving in different circumstances?
The public policy and public behavior go side-by-side and hand-in-hand. The public policies that are not synchronized with the public behavior cannot be expected to succeed no matter how meticulously these policies are designed and rigorously implemented. Similarly, in a long run, a public policy cannot depend on the coercive power of the state excluding the public behavior aspect. However, we need to understand that public policies cannot be designed and implemented accordance with the emotional models; rather they have to be grounded in logics, strategic and tactical, aimed at a long-term collective good of the population.
The COVID-19 pandemic offers quite a few lessons to learn for the nations around the world. The successful nations learn lessons from this kind of unprecedented scenarios, prepare for the future and do not repeatedly sustain similar injuries from similar kind of situations. The COVID-19 pandemic pauses serious challenges for our public policies, their implementation and the converging of the public behavior around the public policies. We need a long term investment in our civic education from the grass-root level to the higher education so that the public behavior voluntarily follows the public policy in an unusual circumstances rather than developing and following personal and group emotional models crating chaos and anarchy in the social ranks. This effort will not only contribute to the public policy management but also to the strengthening of the real essence of nation building.