Usually, the word "crisis" is used to describe sudden and dramatic events like major accidents, natural disasters or terror attacks. While such events can have catastrophic consequences, they are usually confined to a geographic place and lasts for a short period of time. The COVID-19 pandemic is something different - a creeping crisis with an unclear beginning and end.
CORNER’s starting point was that an effective management of a pandemic lies in the dynamics between political-administrative leadership, and the reactions and responses of the public. This means that the project has two main pillars – authorities’ enactment of leadership, and interpretations among the population.
In the first pillar, we have studied leadership on national, regional and local level in Norway, Sweden and Italy. The point of departure for all three countries were a serious lack of basic protective equipment and supply chains with so little buffer that essential input factors became scarce resources. This was an important context for leadership and adaptive capacity in the pandemic.
In Norway, we had the opportunity to observe leadership from the inside, while the crisis was ongoing. We have seen leadership and decision-making that in some periods was characterized by extreme uncertainty in the knowledge-basis, particularly with the emergence of the virus and mutations posing new questions around contagiousness and lethality. Situations combining few registered infections, yet high uncertainty due to mutations and the need for precautionary measures, created difficult dilemmas for leadership and risk communication.
Our data presents, unsurprisingly, examples of coordination problems, misunderstandings, conflict, challenges in prioritizing between operative and strategic tasks, and frustration over a lack of personnel and protective equipment. Anything else would have been surprising, given the complexity of the situation and the organizational landscape through which it was managed. Nevertheless, our material is perhaps more characterized by examples of collaboration and innovation on the local level. We have observed structures for collaboration that filled structural holes between sectors, although not always strongly linked to pre-planned structures for emergency management. We have seen collaboration structures that existed for completely different purposes being reconfigured for emergency purposes during the pandemic. We have seen the emergence of new organizational and technical solutions that were vital for the ability to adapt to the changing challenges the situation. In this way, the crisis has provided invaluable lessons about an adaptive capacity that would be hard to envisage before the pandemic hit.
Although our data have yet to be fully analysed, a preliminary conclusion is that the main difference between the three countries lies on the national level. March 2020 presented a decision dilemma between speed and precision in the introduction of measures. Where Norway prioritized speed through a precautionary approach, Sweden prioritized a strategy based on precision and expertise. This is seen in relation to differences in the regulatory and administrative set-up, but also needs to be seen as cultural differences in policy styles and institutional logics. Italy’s response was influenced by the nation being the first epicenter in Europe, providing them with shorter time to compensate for weaknesses in preparedness. Other researchers have described the Italian response as characterized by initial denial, weak administrative capacity and a complex regional structure (Capaldi, 2020). The response grew increasingly influenced by a strong dependency on expertise, where a small number of medical experts gained high influence on key decisions. All three countries selection of strategy appears as much the result of historical trajectories and administrative traditions, as resulting from analytical deliberation.
The second pillar of CORNER has been to understand how groups of the population interpret the seriousness of the situation and the proportionality of the measures taken. The empirical basis of this part of the analysis was that there was already text available in social media, which contained important information about the social construction of risk and legitimacy. By studying data from social media, we have aimed to understand interpretations and negotiations around proportionality, moral positions in the balancing between individual and collective action, as well as authorities’ risk communication. Particularly important were the controversies arising around measures that seemed to approach the boundaries of what was considered proportional and democratically acceptable, e.g. the introduction of digital surveillance measures. In addition, the social media analysis allows for studying changes in discourses over time.
The project will be running until May 2024 and results will be published continuously.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a creeping crisis posing a tremendous call for effective response in nations across the globe. The basis of CORNER is the hypothesis that effective response to the pandemic lies in the dynamics between leadership by political-administrative authorities on the one hand and the reactions in the public on the other. Nations around the world are being tested on their adaptive capacity - the ability to change and reconfigure with minimum loss of function, as well their ability to ‘bounce back’ from the crisis. CORNER provides a comparative social scientific study in Norway, Sweden and Italy and aims to learn from and improve the real-time efforts to cultivate adaptive capacity to manage the crisis. This aims at improving the resilience to both the current and future major crises.
The public health response is a situation where resource, communication and coordination capabilities are pushed to their limits. The response involves leaders aligning paradoxes and making hard decisions in a continuously evolving situation characterized by high uncertainty. In addition to being a crises to be managed, the pandemic is also a cultural phenomenon. It is a state of exception where risks are attenuated and amplified and where principles of ethics moral values and democracy are more fluent and visible than in normal situations. The crisis actualizes fundamental questions related to digital surveillance, involving a dilemma between protecting the citizens health and well-being, and protecting their right to privacy and freedom.
CORNER analyses this situation by means of three work packages: 1) The translation of existing scientific knowledge and practical experience on risk communication in situations like the COVID-19 crisis, 2) An in situ, real-time study of crisis leadership based on observation of crisis management arenas, and 3) A study of the societal dynamics in and about the crisis combining survey methods with in-depth qualitative analysis.