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August 19, 2020

Meet the initiative that is mapping global legal responses to COVID-19

Meet the initiative that is mapping global legal responses to COVID-19
Mikkel Boris
Director of PR & Communication
Meet the initiative that is mapping global legal responses to COVID-19

Travel bans, lockdowns, curfews, state of emergencies, orders to wear a mask, limits to the press freedom, laws against misinformation, the prohibition of public gatherings and a rapid power concentration in the Ministry of Health which made health ministers into mild dictators. That is about the legal measures and policy responses to the COVID19 pandemic that I can come up with from the top of my head. But there is, of course, so much more if you take your time to research, gather data and dig deep enough.

Many of these laws were adopted and implemented at a rapid speed. Laws that would have taken years to write were made overnight. And some governments were criticised for using this health crisis as an excuse to undermine the rule of law. Furthermore, this myriad of laws was implemented as national policy responses to meet immediate threats within localised areas, even though the pandemic is a global force that takes note of neither borders nor local jurisdictions. Because all these diverse decisions were made so quickly and under such opaque circumstances, there is a considerable task left for the legal masterminds to map out what exactly happened. Which policies worked? Which did not? And most importantly if these laws had any consequences that the decisions makers should be held accountable for.

As a response to that challenge, Margeret Rose-Goddard and her colleagues from FutureLaw, has founded the Global COVID19 Policy Response as a meta-legal research initiative. They have gathered an impressive database with laws and policies and made them publicly available, so anyone can dig into the material: whether they are social scientists, lawyers or legal technologists. Legal Tech Weekly had a brief talk with Rose-Goddard to hear more about their fascinating project.

“The Global COVID19 Policy response is a research project that FutureLaw initiated at the end of March after the global pandemic was declared. We made an open call for lawyers worldwide to come together to start mapping their government policy responses. We were going through the most volatile period of legal policy in modern history—new policies were implemented and being pushed out on a daily, sometimes even an hourly basis at the height of the panic about the crisis. As lawyers, we understand the enormity of the risk associated with massive policy change with limited oversight and not enough access to information. It is a complex situation, and there wasn’t much information. You saw it all over the world. In some countries, there were excesses in government powers to address this pandemic. And in some circumstances, it was almost like watching the rise of a new era of totalitarianism. So there was a job to be done in mapping these policies,” Rose-Goddard tells me over a video call.

Contrary to other similar projects, they are not focused on specific niche areas of the law only but on the interconnections between law and societal outcomes. Instead, they take what they term a complexity-informed approach to legal system change. First, they map what occurred at the policy level, then at the systems level, then they seek to uncover patterns and root causes, to which they apply their legal expertise to identify strategic intervention points for legal system change. For now, they have created a massive database of COVID-19 policy responses from all over the world. They have data collected from 196 countries, and now have Future Law Ambassadors from 6 continents and 51 countries - and they would love to have more experts join the initiative, Rose-Goddard says.

“We are in an exciting phase. We have been mapping and collecting policies, and by May, we began our preliminary series of meta-analyses. We are in the process of producing research reports, identifying leverage points for legal systems change and crafting model provisions. It’s not rapid, and others may seem to be moving more rapidly, but we have taken a complexity informed approach which takes a bit longer - it means sitting with the problem before rushing to solve them despite how pressing the need may appear. We are analysing correlations with different data points, and we have more than 8000 rows of policy data that is open and searchable. It’s becoming an incredible resource,” she elaborates.

In addition to lawyers, they also have data analysts, system thinkers and social scientists as part of the project, and they are also welcoming more technologists. . “We realised early on as we began collecting massive amounts of data that this was not just a legal research project. It was also a technological project. There are now so many different ways we can make connections between different datasets, visualise the data in ways in which it spurs deeper thinking and insight. We are learning about digital narrative language processing, network analysis and other technological tools. The work we are doing in the GCPR network community of practice is pretty foundational. We see our work as contributing to the infrastructure for our collective sense-making and our collective action for intentional system change.” Rose-Goddard explains.

Rose-Goddard, a lawyer from Trinidad and Tobago - now residing in the UK, with over 25 years practice in field of public law, co-founded the FutureLaw Institute in 2019 with Anja Blaj a space lawyer and technologist from Slovenia. The Institute aims to fill the growing gap between legal education and modern reality by pioneering research, education and capacity building at the intersection of complexity theory and the law. They hope to work with other pioneering organisations to “bring about deep socio-ecological transformation at local and global levels” and to generate a fundamental paradigm shift from a “mechanistic understanding of reality to a system and ecological worldview,” as it says in their website. There, you can also read what they view as a critical challenge in current laws and policies which do not recognise “the interconnectedness of all life within our planetary system”. Instead they posit, current laws and legal systems operate to “facilitate short-term extraction, pit individual rights against the collective, favour competition over collaboration and perpetuate a limited view of value creation within society.”

So how does that all relate to the COVID19-project, I wanted to know.

What do you mean by this paradigm shift from a mechanistic reality to a more systemic one?
“It is based on a new understanding of ourselves coming from the natural sciences. Science now shows us that we are interconnected and interdependent and the subject of causality has been turned on its head. For our most complex problems, we must now find new non-linear, non-reductionist ways of going about the process of solving them. Also recent developments in the field of cognitive science destroy the myth of a purely rational, selfish, human and provides evidence that we are far more pro-social and could not have survived and thrived the way we have, were it not so. When you consider it from a philosophical perspective, the law has not developed on the basis of our interconnectedness and interdependence, nor on our human nature to be social, to seek belonging. Our laws are based on a conception of human beings as individual, rational, selfish and rights-seeking. That may be part of who we are, but we are far more than that. We are advocating for the development of laws and policies which embrace more of who we are as human beings, rather than less. We see the current deep ecological crisis and the meta-crisis that COVID19 has catalysed, as providing us with an opportunity collectively to embrace the truth of our interconnectedness and our interdependence.”

Can you give me an example?
I will give an example in the area of public procurement. We have rules which regulate the way governments spend public money on goods, works and services and traditionally that is based once more on classical economic theory that we are rational, self-seeking individuals and the markets would provide the best answers on the question of value. Over the past couple decades, and gaining momentum in the last decade, we have seen a shift in our economic thinking to embrace more pluralist economic perspectives. Traditional procurement asks the question: how do we get the best quality at the lowest price? But that doesn’t recognise that the lowest price can have massive costs to society that are externalized and eventually paid by the state and therefore by citizens. Procurement policy which embraces more rather than less of who we are will find more innovative ways of measuring value and costs and will bring into the buying equation more than lowest price and best quality and take into account our collective costs - our human, social and environmental costs - when governments buy any goods or services.

So how does this systemic thinking connect to the Global Covid19 Research Institute?
“Well we are working to surface the interconnections between the many pressing problems we are facing collectively. What COVID19 has done is give us a front row seat to a systems thinking 101 class. The disproportionate negative impact on black and brown people in European dominated places. It’s not by chance. It is exposing the connection between poverty and health, the lack of multicultural medical competence in European dominated spaces, the mistrust of authority by some communities that hearken back to periods where it was only sensible not to trust. The poorest and most vulnerable in society, disproportionately have poor health, and poor healthcare access and outcomes. It is therefore not rocket science really, that they are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. This virus exposes the interconnectedness of our societal problems. This is not just a public health crisis. It is an economic crisis and it is a crisis of structural racism. We cannot address this in silos. We have to use new tools and ways of problem solving which allow us to plot the relationships between these things.

For example, while exploring connections in the datasets, we have seen a correlation between the rule of law and COVID-19 mortality rates. It is interesting. We find that there is a positive correlation between a high rule of law score and high mortality rates. It suggests that authoritarian states are more effective in the treatment of the pandemic. Look at how China has operated, while less authoritarian states like Sweden and the UK waited and gave more freedom, for a longer time. I am not saying what is good or bad, but the data does seem to throw that up. Countries with more entrenched rule of law, have to respect the rights of its citizens, and that requires more negotiation if citizens rights are going to be infringed. That is a complex issue right here. Of course, we are in no way claiming that there is a causal relationship between the two, merely that there is a correlation which is interesting and there should be more research there.“

Later this autumn, from October 16th-20th, the Global Covid19 Policy Response will organise a web summit where much of their research will be presented and launch their collective in a more formal way. Everyone is invited, and she encourages even non-lawyers to take part in the initiative so they can maintain a diverse perspective and hold the tension between conflicting discourses.

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