Making Sense of the COVID-19 Pandemic Response: A Policy Regime Perspective

2020, Administrative Theory & Praxis, with Peter J. May

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On March 26, 2020, three months after Chinese authorities admitted to a novel coronavirus outbreak and ten weeks after the first infection was documented on American soil, the U.S. led the world in COVID-19 cases. While the State Department touted the U.S. as “leading the world’s humanitarian and health assistance response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” media accounts more often applied terms like “muddled” and “confused.” In this essay, we step back to consider what it takes to bring about swift and coordinated action in pandemic response, and what has impeded such a response thus far in U.S. efforts to address COVID-19. Informed by a policy regime perspective, we argue that the response has been handicapped by deficient political commitment and unclear goals, dysfunctional institutional dynamics - from bureaucratic silos to mis-matched institutions, and inertia from partisan and economic interests. We conclude that the incoherence of the U.S. response to date has further eroded its already undermined legitimacy, and more importantly, has helped engender negative feedback that threatens the near-term durability of response measures, with grave consequences.