Bahrain’s successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic is the direct result of several public administration innovations recently enacted. The benefits can be amplified if they are exported from the public health team to other governmental organizations.
Managing a pandemic is difficult for three reasons. First, there is no policy recipe book to follow: decision makers need to constantly update their plan based on new data, without ever being confident of the “correct” step.
Second, most options involve asking people to make personal sacrifices for the greater good, such as staying at home or taking expensive pre-travel COVID-19 tests, but not everyone is willing to be a team player.
Third, when errors are inevitably made, people die. Thus, the civil servants in charge of a pandemic response must possess exceptional character to do their job under such pressure.
Overall, Bahrain has done a good job of managing the pandemic, especially on the health side: in a country of 1.5 million people, only 10 have passed away due to COVID-19 in the five months since the start of August, which is equal to around seven deaths per million. The corresponding figures for the three most populous members of G7 (US, Germany, and Japan), are 604, 220, and 25, respectively.
Nominally speaking, this success is due to a quick and wide vaccine rollout, including the provision of booster shots early in the game; high levels of testing per capita (ranked 13th globally); and the population being broadly cooperative when it comes to the government’s pandemic guidelines, whether it is wearing masks or refraining from large gatherings.
However, these factors are themselves the result of novel methods of conceiving and implementing policies, which are the ultimate cause of Bahrain’s success. Understanding these innovations allows for them to be exported to other governmental organizations, multiplying the benefits.
A key contributing factor has been high quality planning, as this enabled Bahrain to make sound clinical preparations for the pandemic during late 2019, including rapid procurement of vaccine doses. The benefits of rigorous planning are known to any public administrator and are therefore not the focus of this article. Instead, I would like to emphasize two interrelated elements.
First, embedding homegrown research in the decision-making process. While ultimate authority rests with Bahrain’s cabinet, they have greatly benefited from the judgement of a group of Bahraini public health experts who follow the latest pandemic-related literature from other countries, while using the Bahraini data they gather to inform their own decisions. They then subject their own decisions to rigorous peer review by publishing their findings in academic journals.
This process guarantees the quickest possible rate of error detection and correction, and the tailoring of general public health principles to Bahrain’s unique circumstances. This form of data-driven policymaking is only possible if data are shared promptly with the homegrown experts, and if the homegrown experts are allowed to publish their research in international academic journals. Any deviation from these conditions massively curtails the effectiveness of the chosen policies.
Second, engaging the general public in a transparent manner. The experts driving the decisions hold press conferences at least once a week, fielding practically any question the media throw at them. The daily case/mortality data are published at midnight, even when they were at their grimmest during May, when Bahrain was registering almost 30 deaths per day.
All of this makes the public feel like a partner rather than a subordinate, and therefore much more willing to adhere to guidelines that require a personal sacrifice. Moreover, preparing to take questions from the public – even if many are naïve or inane – helps keep the experts sharp and alerts them to possible errors in their methods.
The UK’s leading epidemiologist and former member of the UK taskforce, Dr. Neil Ferguson, made an error in his pandemic model that was uncovered due to the government’s commitment to transparency. The US’ own public health tsar, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has also made several errors that came to light due to the openness of communications. In both cases, early detection of the errors meant early correction, and this commitment to transparency has allowed the Bahraini taskforce to rapidly steady the ship when things didn’t go exactly to plan.
Every governmental organization in Bahrain can benefit greatly by adopting the best practices highlighted by the National COVID-19 Taskforce. That means making high quality data available to researchers promptly, seeking those experts’ counsel, and allowing them to share their findings through academic conferences and journals. It also means explaining decisions to the public via a transparent dialogue and demonstrating a readiness to adapt rapidly when circumstances change, or when the data reveal something unexpected.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused much pain and suffering in Bahrain, but one of its most enduring positive legacies could be a permanent rise in the quality of statecraft. Every Bahraini should study the National Taskforce’s actions because there is much to learn from their progressive mindset.