Managing pandemics as super wicked problems: lessons from, and for, COVID-19 and the climate crisis

Graeme Auld, Steven Bernstein, Benjamin Cashore & Kelly Levin


COVID-19 has caused 100s of millions of infections and millions of deaths worldwide, overwhelming health and economic capacities in many countries and at multiple scales. The immediacy and magnitude of this crisis has resulted in government officials, practitioners and applied scholars turning to reflexive learning exercises to generate insights for managing the reverberating effects of this disease as well as the next inevitable pandemic. We contribute to both tasks by assessing COVID-19 as a “super wicked” problem denoted by four features we originally formulated to describe the climate crisis: time is running out, no central authority, those causing the problem also want to solve it, and policies irrationally discount the future (Levin et al. in Playing it forward: path dependency, progressive incrementalism, and the “super wicked” problem of global climate change, 2007; Levin et al. in Playing it forward: Path dependency, progressive incrementalism, and the “super wicked” problem of global climate change, 2009; Levin et al. in Policy Sci 45(2):123–152, 2012). Doing so leads us to identify three overarching imperatives critical for pandemic management. First, similar to requirements to address the climate crisis, policy makers must establish and maintain durable policy objectives. Second, in contrast to climate, management responses must always allow for swift changes in policy settings and calibrations given rapid and evolving knowledge about a particular disease’s epidemiology. Third, analogous to, but with swifter effects than climate, wide-ranging global efforts, if well designed, will dramatically reduce domestic costs and resource requirements by curbing the spread of the disease and/or fostering relevant knowledge for managing containment and eradication. Accomplishing these tasks requires building the analytic capacity for engaging in reflexive anticipatory policy design exercises aimed at maintaining, or building, life-saving thermostatic institutions at the global and domestic levels.

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