Queen's Policy Engagement

A ‘super-wicked’ policy problem: the cross-border challenges of responding to COVID-19

Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh, Northern Ireland project lead for the recently-formed International Public Policy Observatory, looks at why taking a trans-national approach to pandemic responses has proved so difficult – for the island of Ireland as elsewhere.

A ‘super-wicked’ policy problem: the cross-border challenges of responding to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic comfortably meets the threshold of what public policy scholars refer to as a ‘super-wicked’ policy problem. These are understood as policy problems of a global nature that transcend organisational boundaries, elude obvious solutions, and involve uncertain and contested knowledge.

In common with other super-wicked problems, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has posed immediate and severe policy challenges (in this case to national health services) and its collateral impact has spread to virtually all other public policy arenas including social care, education and security. A huge variety of policy responses has been provoked, and considerable progress has been made to capture these responses in a meaningful way.

Like the super-wicked problem of climate change, the coronavirus pandemic is trans-national in nature, and demands unprecedented and swift levels of cooperation and coordination between and within states. Such cooperation has not been universally evident, however, and the United Nations has routinely raised concerns about this issue – most recently in the context of vaccine distribution and ‘vaccine nationalism’.  In due course, questions will have to be asked about why coordination of policy interventions at both the inter- and intra-state levels has been so poor and slow in the face of a global pandemic.

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Article originally appeared on the IPPO website. 


Image appears courtesy of Shutterstock.

Professor Muiris MacCarthaigh
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Muiris MacCarthaigh is Professor of Politics and Public Policy in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. He is Co-Investigator with the Irish State Administration Database project (www.isad.ie) and the Northern Ireland lead on the International Public Policy Observatory - a £2m Economic and Social Research Council collaboration with University College London, Cardiff University, the University of Oxford, the University of Auckland and a number of think-tanks.

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