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Latin American countries had very different covid-19 death rates. Which policies worked?

Collaboration helped forge more effective government responses, our research found

People on Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 20. (Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)
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Nearly two years into the pandemic, new variants like omicron continue to spread quickly through different countries. Covid-19, it appears, will remain a major challenge for worldwide governance in 2022.

How have governments fared when it comes to combating covid-19? And why do health outcomes in some countries differ so drastically from others?

Our research, carried out with Lucas González and Antonella Perini, shows that how governments craft a pandemic response matters. National governments that created their pandemic policies in collaboration with other governmental and nongovernmental organizations tended to see fewer covid-related deaths. Collaboration, in this sense, saved lives.

Other political factors cannot fully explain the effectiveness of different government responses to the pandemic. Being a democracy (or not) produced mixed results in terms of covid-related deaths. Other research shows that neither federal nor unitary political systems had a clear advantage during the first year of the pandemic. Populist leaders also had a mixed record on confronting the pandemic.

Even political ideology doesn’t fully capture why some governments have been more successful than others at addressing the virus. One need only compare President Jair Bolsonaro’s poor performance in Brazil to that of another right-wing conservative, President Luis Lacalle of Uruguay, who emerged as a world leader in containing covid-related deaths during the pandemic’s first year.

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Why is collaboration so important?

Tackling covid-19 is a complex policy problem. The virus ignores country and regional boundaries and has a deep impact on health, education, the economy, immigration and many other policy areas.

One potent way to address a “wicked problem” like covid-19 is through collaboration. When governments collaborate, they work with a variety of people and groups to craft public policy. Organizations from the public and private spheres representing different groups and interests offer a range of skills and resources. When governments engage with these organizations, soliciting advice and critical feedback, the results tend to produce better policy.

How do you measure collaboration?

We tallied how often the national executive branch met with different groups, using reporting by at least three major newspapers. Did the president sit down with social organizations to address quarantine policy? What about the policy for closing schools? A country received a point each time its executive branch met with social organizations on different pandemic-related topics, including the two mentioned here. A country’s social collaboration score reflected its total points across each of these topics.

We also checked these other areas: how well national governments worked with mayors and governors; the levels of institutional collaboration between bureaucrats at the national and local levels; and collaboration with independent scientists and also with the private sector. A country’s overall collaboration score includes national executive collaboration along all of these dimensions.

How does collaboration matter?

We calculated collaboration scores in Latin America, a region disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, our findings can be extended to any part of the world.

We measured how collaboration potentially impacted one of the worst outcomes of the pandemic: national covid-related mortality rates, according to metrics from Our World in Data.

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We found that, under certain conditions, collaboration was associated with fewer covid-related deaths. For example, in countries where governments met with social organizations about vaccine distribution, there were fewer coronavirus-related deaths. The same was true in countries where national and subnational bureaucrats collaborated on quarantine policy. We also saw fewer covid-related deaths when national governments collaborated with labor unions.

A closer examination of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina supported these results. Bolsonaro denied the severity of the virus and lambasted public health recommendations from Brazil’s independent scientists and state governors. Lacalle and Argentine President Alberto Fernández, by contrast, worked closely with independent scientists, social organizations and subnational governments.

Did this collaboration in Argentina and Uruguay make a difference? It probably did — early on, Argentina and Uruguay were among the world’s top performers at containing contagion and death, while Brazil struggled.

Collaboration helps us understand these results. For example, in the first months of the pandemic, when Argentina was a world leader in addressing the pandemic, the president worked closely with provincial governors. But this collaboration broke down a few months into the pandemic. After nearly six months of intergovernmental squabbles over pandemic policy, the country’s covid-based death rate had spiked.

These four reasons help to explain the collaboration effect

First, when governments collaborate, they can pool the distinct resources that other groups offer. In Uruguay, for instance, the president tapped into the knowledge of independent scientists and the resources and infrastructure of public and private companies to create a free app, Coronavirus UY, that provided information about understanding, testing for and tracking covid-19.

Second, different organizations represent distinct interests. Policies, consequently, can be more inclusive. The Argentine government worked closely with social movement leaders, who helped ensure that vulnerable populations had access to relief and were informed about evolving lockdown measures.

Third, collaboration helps to produce more coherent, unified messages about quarantine policy. Bolsonaro spoke out against Brazil’s lockdown measures that governors and scientists openly promoted. These mixed messages generated confusion about how citizens should combat covid-19.

And fourth, collaboration can promote cooperation, rather than competition, over limited and finite resources, such as medical equipment, N95 masks and other protective equipment.

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Collaboration isn’t easy — or common

In the 21st century, covid-19 is one of many complex global problems, including international drug trafficking, climate change and forced migration, that the world faces. Collaboration can help to forge better response to these complex issues — but questions remain.

For one, collaboration is quite rare. Political resources are distributed asymmetrically across and within countries. Organizations inside and outside of government vary in terms of their political muscle, wealth and institutional capacity. Given this, future research should ask how collaboration can be incentivized.

Collaboration is also difficult to sustain over time, as Argentina and Uruguay’s poor performance in the second pandemic year suggests. Moving forward, another question to examine is what might weaken collaboration once it is in place and what, by contrast, might sustain it.

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Matias Bianchi is executive director of Asuntos del Sur. This research was funded by the generous contribution of the Canadian government’s International Development Research Center.

Jennifer Cyr is associate professor of political science at the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires.