Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid politics – We Have to do Something About It! Agency and Pandemic
Piotr Kulas & Mikołaj Pawlak
In this paper, we tackle a problem concerning uncertainty, risk, and agency. The current pandemic causes uncertainty in the entire world, beginning from everyday life up to complicated economic mechanisms and political decision-making. We put forward a thesis that changing uncertainty into risk is a crucial demand of public policies and social actors. By doing so, operating on different levels social actors try to preserve their agency and sustain their sense of reality. It is based on the assumption that we can manage the crisis in the opposition to uncertainty .
During the pandemic, we can see countless examples of coping with uncertainty. Current behaviour thus might be perceived as an expression of uncertainty and fear, as well as coping with anxiety and uncertainty. Making sense of what is going on is an apparent reaction. We perceive it similarly in a search for warm interpersonal contacts, and in the claim that authorities should cope with the crisis. People expect that public institutions will take proper actions to overcome the pandemic. The expectation that the State should be solving the current problems seems almost natural.
In this paper, we point to a particular paradox that makes people act. On the one hand, the introduced measures are supposed to secure social distancing and make people isolated in their homes. On the other hand, the need, or even pressure, to act emerges. It is expected that authorities and other social actors will act and prove their agency. The actions hopefully will remove uncertainty and the fear it causes. It is a fundamental characteristic of modernity. According to Giddens , modernity is a transformation from times of fate and fortune, to times when “risk, and risk calculation, edge aside fortuna in virtually all domains of human activity … The notion of risk becomes central in a society which is taking leave of the past”.
Uncertainty is incalculable and uncontrollable. The risk might be assessed and it gives the illusion of control and predictability . One of the forms of translating uncertainty into risk is to produce regulations. In the late modernity, the management of risk is delegated to bureaucracy and experts. By limiting the uncertainty, bureaucrats (producers of regulations) and professionals (producers of expertise) have been justifying their existence. Organizations and experts claim to be rational by calculating the risk and inspecting its distribution. Yet, the calculation of risk is never fulfilled because there is always a space for unexpected consequences. “The thesis that risk assessment itself is inherently risky is nowhere better borne out than in the area of high-consequence risks” .
Decision-makers are expected to act by regulating the actions of citizens and residents of their states. A decision-maker is an archetype of a social actor. This role is defined by acting, and it is hard to imagine a decision-maker who rests on inaction. That is why in regular times public institutions routinized the reforms to signal their capacity to act . In the turbulent situation of pandemic, decision-makers holding posts at various levels of administration feel the pressure to show their agency against the virus. Obviously, the coordinators of the healthcare systems are expected to act. But the will to be agentic is spreading similarly to the virus. In the Polish case, the main figures managing the pandemic are the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health, yet quite quickly other decision-makers started acting: the Minister of the Interiora and the Minister of National Defence, then actions started being taken by mayors of the municipalities, and so on. Eventually, all sorts of public agencies were showing their agency in reaction to the virus, including the Director-General of the State Forests, who decided to lock down approximately 30% of the Polish territory, which comprises forests under his jurisdiction. The justification was that people might be breaking the rules of isolation to get to forests. The unintended consequence is inconsistency and an overflow of regulations. The inconsistencies were visible on the international level too, where some states had quickly introduced restrictions, other states had waited to see how the situation unfolds, and some others had belittled the threat.
The situation is unprecedented, so it is hard to foresee which measures will turn out to be effective and which not. We point to the fact that reasonable actions might turn unreasonable when confronted with a plethora of other unreasonable actions or simply contribute to more chaos going around. All the actors pursuing their actions are confident that it is reasonable what they do. Currently, it is not possible to evaluate all sorts of the measures that have been implemented. The pandemic again brought to light that “No one is in control. That is the major source of contemporary fear”. Risk management is a paradoxical enterprise. Many decision centres contribute to even more risk, but the desire to have only one decision centre just gives an illusion that one omnipotent actor would be able to control the situation. The experts in one domain are ignorant in another domain, and both their expertise and ignorance adds to the general uncertainty.
The same can be said of the agency of elites. The elites contributing to the production of public discourse are the ones that mostly stay in their homes. Their work in the media, universities, and other institutions of the sort which do not require physical presence in the office or workplace. Isolation, anxiety, more free time, and the urge to contribute somehow to the struggle against the pandemic triggered them to produce demands for action. Playing with pandemic models, looking for solutions from other countries, or just inventing their own ideas on how to fight the virus, became the preoccupation of a significant part of the cultural elite. Influencers started advising their followers, with journalists and public intellectuals advising the policy-makers how to deal with the crisis. “We should all wear face-masks”, “hotels should be changed in the hostels for quarantine”, “parking in the city centres should be free of charge to support people avoiding public transportation” – these are just illustrations from the Polish production of the demand for action. The public discourse delivers not only a plethora of ideas for action, but also on the aggregated level the general demand for doing something about this situation.
The demand from the public discourse triggers a new supply of actions. The restrictions in Poland were not announced just once, nor was there a strategy of introducing the next phases of restrictions. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Health announced restrictions several times (on 11.3, 13.3, 31.3 and 9.4), and each time they were more limiting of the spectrum of actions to be taken by people in public. The new restrictions were a combination of responses to the demands of public opinion, and imitation of restrictions applied in other states. On the supply side of the agency, the decision-makers produce new acts in their domains, whether they are linked with the Coronavirus threat or not.
The circle of demand and supply for agency could be called a vicious one. After the actions immediately taken, soon people started requiring actions towards the (social and economic) unintended consequences of actions targeting the spread of the pandemic. So closing down the restaurants, hospitality businesses, and other services in order to stop the spread of the disease, triggered the need to start actions responding to the spread of the economic crisis.
So the question arises: Can we afford not acting? Inaction would lead to the disruption of legitimacy. Action and calling for action help make sense of the radically uncertain situation. The circle of demand and supply in agency might be seen from another perspective – as a circle of sense-making. Acting and calling for action is our mode of making sense of the world around us. Let us imagine a fatalist approach of doing nothing about the pandemic. Although that kind of inaction would be appropriate in certain more mystical periods of history, it currently seems to be insane. Being super-agentic towards the pandemic is the only justified response for modern people.
This situation creates a paradox. We are flooded with both reasonable and unreasonable actions of different social actors. Many of them contribute to more uncertainty. However, we do not have capacities (both tools and time) to assess the proposed solutions. Moreover, agents are often not able to do it otherwise. The pandemic is an extreme situation, but the proliferation of agency is actually a dominant trait of current societies. After all, we live in an era of acceleration . Although the claims of this article are valid for regular times, we currently see them clearly due to the extreme conditions.
 Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Sage Publications.
 Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford university press. Polity Press,
 Knight, F. H. (1921). Risk, uncertainty and profit. Harper & Row.
 Brunsson, N. (2009). Reform as routine: Organizational change and stability in the modern world. Oxford University Press.
 Rosa, H. (2013). Social acceleration: A new theory of modernity. Columbia University Press.
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