COVID-19 and the policy sciences: initial reactions and perspectives


The world is in the grip of a crisis that stands unprecedented in living memory. The COVID-19 pandemic is urgent, global in scale, and massive in impacts. Following Harold D. Lasswell’s goal for the policy sciences to offer insights into unfolding phenomena, this commentary draws on the lessons of the policy sciences literature to understand the dynamics related to COVID-19.
We explore the ways in which scientific and technical expertise, emotions, and narratives influence policy decisions and shape relationships among citizens, organizations, and governments. We discuss varied processes of adaptation and change, including learning, surges in policy responses, alterations in networks (locally and globally), implementing policies across transboundary issues, and assessing policy success and failure. We conclude by identifying understudied aspects of the policy sciences that deserve attention in the pandemic’s aftermath.


The world is in the midst of the most severe pandemic in living memory. Scientists dubbed the pandemic’s source “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” (SARS-CoV-2), but it is more commonly referred by the label assigned the disease it causes: coronavirus disease 2019 or “COVID-19”. COVID-19 spread rapidly at a historic scale and with unprecedented impacts. Although milder symptoms include fever, aches, dry coughing, and shortness of breath, COVID-19 poses life-threatening conditions, ranging from respiratory failure to multi-organ disfunction. Older adults and those with pre-existing conditions (e.g., asthma) are at higher risk for the more severe impacts. However, everyone is susceptible, and anyone can contract and spread the disease.

The numbers of COVID-19 patients seeking medical care have strained entire healthcare systems worldwide. In many locations, outbreaks of COVID-19 have overwhelmed hospitals and healthcare professionals. Moreover, the effects go far beyond those felt by healthcare systems; they stretch across virtually every sector of society—from food systems to education—and have debilitated economies.

Societies rely on health sciences and medicine to forecast the pandemic’s trajectory, to accelerate development of vaccines, to explain the situation to a worried public, and navigate the myriad of related health-related decisions. However, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on society requires more than the actions of healthcare and medical professionals alone. It calls for engagement of citizens, governments at all levels, and a diverse array of organizations and individuals involved in policymaking processes and policy implementation.

Questions, thus, arise about the role of the policy sciences in comprehending such a crisis. Lasswell (1956a) envisioned the policy sciences as providing insights into such situations, challenging and informing ongoing processes and decisions, and foretelling of future scenarios, all with the intent of steering government and society toward greater human dignity for all. Since the formulation of this vision over seven decades ago, the policy sciences have evolved into a vibrant field of scholarship, marked by conceptual richness, theoretical diversity, and methodological pluralism (Cairney and Weible 2017; Torgerson 2017). This commentary capitalizes on the diversity and follows in the footsteps of Lasswell’s vision by responding to the following question: What insights do the policy sciences offer to help us understand the COVID-19 pandemic?

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