Country Resources

Conquering the virus: whole-of-government or whole-of-society approach?

Rene E. Ofreneo

In their response to the Covid 19 threat, a number of countries have adopted a holistic whole-of-government program of slowing and containing the virus spread. Whole of government means different government agencies, with varying mandates, work together to combat the common growth issue.  Hence, the major departments involved in the Philippines’ Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) to prevent the spread of the dreaded virus are the Department of Health, Department of Trade and Industry, Department of Agriculture, Department of Labor and Employment, Department of Interior and Local Governments and the National Economic Development Authority. 

Naturally, in a whole-of-government approach, the President or Prime Minister is on top of the totem pole.  In crisis situations, this governance set-up is ideal for strong-willed political leaders. Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist, is hailed by his right-wing admirers, for his ability to lock down a country with a population of 1.3 billion.  Earlier, Xi Jinping, referred to by many as China’s new Mao Tse Tung, was able to lock down the whole of China for over two months and put Hubei and its Wuhan capital under very strict quarantine conditions for three months.Of course, Xi , was able to do this with the help of the monolithic Communist Party of China (CCP), which he also heads.

In the Philippines, our own strongman, President Rodrigo Duterte, was able to order a Luzon-wide lockdown for one month, from mid-March to mid-April, without encountering any major opposition. The Administration was also able to push, effortlessly, for a multi-billion-peso supplemental budget for  “Bayanihan to Heal as One”one week after the lockdown order.

In contrast, the United States and a number of European countries, which are all experiencing exponential rates of Covid infections and related deaths, have had difficult political and policy debates on whether to lock down or not their countries and on whether to close the economy or not.  It is extremely painful to see how the pandemic has managed to ravage these countries amidst their unsettled political and policy debates.

Is the whole-of-government approach a good way of responding to the pandemic? 

It is.  For the epidemic is not merely a health or medical issue.  Nor can it be remedied by one department or ministry alone.

But the whole-of-government approach need not be adopted in an authoritarian manner. Authoritarian leaders are not infallible. China and the world paid a high price in the earlier effort of Xi and his CCP to cover up the emergence of the virus in early December 2019 and to keep the virus a secret tillJanuary 2020. 

In the case of India and the Philippines, a lockdown without sufficient preparations and without consultations with all relevant stakeholders can generate difficult social, economic and other related medical problems. As things have turned out, these two countries have encountered problems along the way: limited hospital facilities, shortages in testing kits, lack of protective gear for the health workers, no sustainable program of survival for the most vulnerable during a drawn-out lockdown, no protection for the “invisible” segments of society (e.g., rural migrants, unregistered slum dwellers, etc.), disruption of the flow of food and other vital supplies needed by communities, and so on and so forth. 

And yet, in other Asian countries with strong governments, the whole-of-government appears to be working.  At least, this seems to be the case in Singaporeand Vietnam.  The big difference lies in the early decision by these countries to adopt tough lockdown and isolation measures, maintain transparent communication throughout the containment period, and deliver efficient and timely testing, isolation and monitoring services.

This is also the situation in the case of South Korea. As we wrote earlier, the Korean government, led by a democratically-elected labor lawyer,  reacted to the Covid threat quickly and decisively by communicating the risks posed by the epidemic to society and by producing and deploying in a rapid manner the necessary test  kits.  Moreover, South Korea got the active support of labor and civil society groups in the fight against corona virus.  These groups pushed for the quick development of needed testing kits, PPEs and other medical needs, with some help from Korean industry.  They are also doing volunteer work in the “hot spots”. They also made sure no one is excluded; thus, the migrants are covered by Korea’s protective mantle.

The Korean model, in a way, goes beyond the whole-of-government approach.  It is a broader whole-of-society approach.  As elaborated by both the WHO and the UN Development Program, whole of society means partnership building between government and all stakeholders of society in addressing health, education, energy, agriculture, sports, transport, communication, environment, employment, industry, finance and social and economic development.  This entails not only dialogue but also formulation of a unified or common agenda on how the government and the broad civil society can collaborate and work together in solving these issues. As the WHO put it, whole-of-society approach means government engaging the private sector, civil society, communities, academia, media, voluntary associations, families and individuals to strengthen the resilience of communities and society as a whole. 

Affirmative action due to the foregoing partnership building can take place  at all levels of governance – global, national, local/provincial, and community. Unavoidably, partnership can be 

multi-sectoral and intersectoral. 

Is there a good model for a whole-of-society approach in dealing with the pandemic? 

There is:  Cuba. 

But first, some news on Cuba’s global contribution in the fight against Covid 19.According to Al Jazeera, a global rival of CNN media outfit, tiny Cuba has 29,000 doctors and nurses presently working in 59 countries. As part of its “internationalist” mission, Cuba has been assisting Bahamas, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Grenada, Suriname, Jamaica and other Latin American countries to fight Convid 19 by sending medical contingents and medicine (for free in depressed Central American countries). Italy and Spain, the most afflicted by Covid 19, have asked for the services of Cuban doctors and medicine, mainly because Cuba has established a good reputation in China.

At the height of the epidemic in China, Cuban medical “brigades”  got good results in treating a number of Wuhan patients by using the Cuban antiviral “Interferon Alpha 2B Recombinant (IFNrec)”. This Interferon is a product of Cuba’s advanced bio-medical industrial development.  This industrial development was an offshoot of the decision by the government of Fidel Castro in mid-1960s to overcome US economic blockade by developing Cuba’s capacity to manufacture essential drugs and transform each “barrio” as a model of wellness, self-reliance and resiliency. Today, Cuba is considered by the WHO  as the most prepared country in handling  an epidemic with the active participation of the whole population.  There is, in fact, a doctor in every “barrio” that calls on all residents on a regular basis.

Nonetheless, corona virus has also washed into Cuban shores, no thanks to infected visitors, mostly tourists. As of March 23, there  were 46 patients.  The first fatality was a 61-year-old Italian.   Like other countries, Cuba tightened its borders.  But one significant measure it undertook: asking each “barrio” to discuss Convid 19 and how each citizen can help arrest its spread without freezing economic movement.  This is truly whole-of-society approach!

Finally, when Latin American countries refused the British cruise ship Braemer, carrying around 700 passengers, to dock out of fear of Convid 19, Cuba, in a gesture of international solidarity, did not only receive the ship but also attended medically to each of the passengers, mostly British.  This is solidarity of the highest order!

Response to COVID-19 crisis: Ideology makes a difference