Ensuring state continuity during the coronavirus pandemic

State Continuity and the Coronavirus Pandemic State Continuity and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Governments must lead responses to the COVID-19 pandemic through policy, coordination, funding, and fast, agile implementation.  Governments themselves are directly impacted, as social distancing requires them to use new processes and technology to continue critical core operations – while also managing the impact of the crisis on the public service. As institutions are inevitably reshaped, they must strike a balance between ensuring accountability for the influx and redirection of additional funds and resources and carrying out their day-to-day work, all without jeopardizing good governance principles and norms.

The pandemic calls for effective, inclusive, and accountable governments.  To drive the response, they will need to be fast, creative, flexible, effective, transparent, and accountable. In the exceptional situation countries are facing, governments will need to take bold, out-of-the box actions to mitigate the impact on households, the private sector (financial markets and companies), state-owned enterprises, and their own agencies. In most countries, public sector institutions are responsible for emergency services (usually alongside private providers), formulation of special responses (economic support packages, cash transfers, or other social safety nets), coordination across several levels of government, and regulation of private sector agents to reduce speculative behaviors. 

To perform these roles –and many others – effectively, governments need to:

  • Ensure business continuity and emergency decision-making processes, both at the central and local levels.
  • Mobilize, reallocate, and efficiently implement public resources while mitigating risks of fraud and corruption.
  • Leverage domestic revenue mobilization to facilitate the health care supply chain and address the evolving economic crisis. This includes using tax systems to offer relief for citizens and businesses during the emergency and recovery periods.
  • Ensure continuity of employment and management, focusing first on the health care sector but next on the wider public service. This can include support and incentives, as well as agile procedures for effective, timely deployment and continuity.
  • Provide essential services, including health but also other critical areas, such as social protection, education, agriculture, transport, justice, security, energy, and water.
  • Ensure transparency and accountability around the crisis response, decision making, and use of resources.
  • Creatively engage with citizens and businesses to develop collaborative spaces and innovative solutions.

Countries will be affected to varying degrees by the health and economic crises and will have different levels of institutional, financial, and human resources to implement responses.  Critically, the relevance and feasibility of their institutional and governance adjustments will depend on the timing of the pandemic. Changes will be less feasible if the crisis is unfolding already, but more feasible if there is time to get institutions and systems adjusted before impacts are felt. 

Many countries have quickly adopted social distancing measures, including lockdowns. In some, ICT literacy, internet connectivity, and other infrastructure make it possible for some government workers to work from home and deliver administrative services online. In others, these options are not possible: responses must be delivered using significantly reduced staffing and non-ICT-based tools. Even if ICT infrastructure is available, clear guidelines and protocols are needed for government services and decision-making processes to be effective on a continuous basis, and public sector staff need to be trained to respond accordingly. 

All countries – especially resource dependent ones – are facing severe revenue shortfalls. They may not have equal access to lending and other sources of funding, which makes prioritization more challenging and necessary. And countries affected by fragility, conflict, and violence face additional challenges. Given the limited capacity of fragile countries, priority must go to tackling the health crisis and guaranteeing the continuity of the state. Priority could also be given to implementing and coordinating actions with UN agencies or other specialized organizations. 

The World Bank stands ready to help countries ensure state continuity during COVID-19 pandemic.  Effective response requires adequate state capacity. We have extensive experience in public sector reform and emergency management, and our resources can help our clients implement practical and immediate solutions. By connecting countries across the globe, the Bank is also helping share and exchange experiences and best practices. As we all learn from this unprecedented situation, the Bank offers a space to work together in developing the best approaches and most effective solutions for all governments. 


Ed Olowo-Okere

Senior Advisor in the Equitable Growth, Finance, and Institutions (EFI) Vice Presidency at the World Bank. 

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