Social policy perspectives on COVID-19
3 June 2021
By Professor Linda Hantrais FAcSS, Emeritus Professor in European Social Policy, Department of Politics and International Studies, Loughborough University; Visiting Professor at the LSE International Inequalities Institute
Social policy analysis of the pandemic involves researchers from a wide range of social science and humanities disciplines, spanning history, politics, economics, sociology, psychology, anthropology and law. In the twentieth century, social policy analysts progressively extended their reach to issues of equality, social rights and wellbeing, income maintenance and redistribution, employment, health and social care, education, lifelong learning and housing. The COVID-19 pandemic heightened the need for robust social policy analysis conducted globally at the interface between the social, human and life sciences, and technology.
When Europe was at the epicentre of the pandemic in early 2020, social policy analysts were well placed to challenge the use of uncontextualised statistics for COVID-19 cases and deaths in comparisons of the experiences of EU28 member states and the performances of their governments (Hantrais and Letablier, 2021). This European case study demonstrated the value for policy of learning from comparisons founded on an in-depth understanding of key socio-demographic and public health indicators. By adopting an integrated, multidisciplinary, international approach, the authors provided a template for analysing and understanding policy responses to the pandemic and for using evidence-based comparisons to inform and support policy development.
Evidence accumulated in the early phase of the pandemic suggested, for example, that European countries with densely populated, high urban concentrations and internationally connected populations, in conjunction with high old-age dependency ratios and high rates of underlying health conditions (obesity, diabetes), would be more likely to record larger numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Other determining socio-demographic, economic and environmental factors were found to be poorly funded and equipped public healthcare provision, and underdeveloped technological infrastructures. Ethnicity, crowded living conditions in multigenerational households, risky lifestyles, and precarious working arrangements in low-paid public-facing jobs compounded the risk of contracting and dying from the virus.
The difficulties of governments in mitigating the social and economic impacts of the pandemic were amplified by entrenched political divisions, unstable, dysfunctional or populist governments, and sceptical electorates. By contrast, as predicted by historians and political scientists, successful policy outcomes were associated with political stability and consensus, public trust in governments and in the scientific evidence on which they relied as a basis for policy choices, a strong sense of individual and social responsibility, and respect for the rule of law. These underpinning social conditions mattered. As the knowledge base about the disease expanded, evidence accumulated about the extent to which the pandemic and policy responses to it were exacerbating existing inequalities both between and within societies.
Even at the early stage in the pandemic, it was clear from the same study that the sharing of competences and responsibilities for public health between EU institutions and member states, and between different levels of governance within member states, was a complicating factor in any analysis of the performance of individual governments in controlling the spread of the virus. The study showed how the pandemic aggravated latent tensions, divisions and dilemmas, and why these conflicts resurfaced a year later in the acrimonious debates in Europe about the procurement and roll-out of vaccines.
As new surges of the virus affected countries in the EU and in other parts of the world that had been relatively unscathed during the first wave of the pandemic, lessons were sought both from history and from countries that might have been expected to learn from their experience about how to contain the virus. Here too, it was important to understand why certain policies appeared to work in a particular socio-demographic, economic, political, epidemiological and legal context, and to ask whether and why they might, or might not, be transferable to a different temporal or spatial environment (Hantrais and MacGregor, 2021).
This multidisciplinary social policy analysis allows us to draw out some lessons for the future, many of which were not evident in less broadly couched disciplinary studies:
Lesson one: Scientific knowledge is dynamic. Since the body of evidence about COVID-19 has grown exponentially, decision-takers need to listen to the scientists and adapt policies to changing circumstances.
Lesson two: A patchwork of complex interconnected socio-economic and political factors need to be considered in understanding the aetiology of the disease across time and space and in formulating policy responses.
Lesson three: Published statistics must be treated with caution. Raw figures need to be carefully scrutinised with reference to country-specific data collection methods and resources, and contextualised in relation to population size and other socio-demographic factors that affect the spread and responses to the virus.
Lesson four: No direct universal causal relationship can be established between observed trends, policy responses and outcomes. The efficacy of measures depends not only on timing, stringency and clarity of messaging, but also on public compliance and underlying social and governance issues.
Lesson five: Pre-existing institutional arrangements, technological infrastructures, national resources, preparedness to confront risks, forms of governance, public trust in the state and in scientists determine resilience and adaptability of societies, and their capacity to survive public health crises.
Lesson six: By amplifying deep-seated socio-economic, educational and health inequalities and injustices between and within societies, the pandemic has drawn attention to the importance of these social factors for policy development.
Lesson seven: Close cooperation across disciplinary, national and sectoral boundaries, global collaboration and knowledge exchange are essential if the world is to defeat the current pandemic, be prepared to deal more effectively with future public health crises, and confront the challenges of the climate emergency.
Hantrais, L. and Letablier, M-T. (2021) Comparing and Contrasting the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the European Union, Oxon & New York: Routledge. www.routledge.com/9780367691721
Hantrais, L. and MacGregor, S. (2021) Containing COVID, parts 1−4, LSE Public Policy Blog, 29 April 2021.
Professor Linda Hantrais FAcSS is Emeritus Professor in European Social Policy in the Department of Politics and International Studies, Loughborough University, and Visiting Professor at the LSE International Inequalities Institute. Since 2011 when it was established, she has chaired the Academy of Social Science’s International Advisory Group (IAG). Members of the IAG have organised international activities, including a seminar series on international and interdisciplinary insights into evidence-based policy, four guest-edited themed issues of the Academy’s journal on associated topics, as well as research training events. With other IAG members, she is currently editing a special issue of Frontier in Sociology on the topic of ‘Families and COVID-19: an interactive relationship’, and is preparing an Edward Elgar ‘How to … guide’ on ‘How to manage international multidisciplinary research projects’.
The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.
This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.