RACHEL BEATTY RIEDL: I'm Rachel Beatty Riedl, the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies in the Department of Government, and I'm the Director of the Einaudi Center for International Studies. So for me personally, the pandemic has great impact in my field of study. I work in African politics, looking at governance, political parties, regime types, democracy versus autocracy. And this pandemic has enormous impact on my own study and the field of African politics.
In the first place, because of Africa's history and successful fight against previous epidemics, such as Ebola, and their current medical coordination against things like cholera and measles, malaria, Africa is one of the first places we should be looking to be able to understand effective responses and to learn from existing responses to health crises. And we can learn a lot from their reactions.
It's also a place in which we can see the struggle over democratic rights and freedoms, citizenship questions, that play out in attempts of governments to both handle and respond to the crisis while also potentially exacerbating authoritarian tendencies within the government. So this is a moment in which governments have extraordinary power to take on different sets of policy that they may not have had access to before, to issue mandates by decree, to make a set of decisions about allocation of public goods with few checks.
And so we see that, in different countries, those powers can be used to further centralize authoritarian tendencies or to respond to the rights and the needs of citizens. So it's really an interesting place to be able to see and an important place to be able to see the effects of a pandemic and effective responses to it.
Now the pandemic has changed my own perspective as a scholar and my work and my approach to my work very personally, because within both political science and behavioral economics, we sometimes approach decision-making and how people make demands upon the political system from a kind of psychological or behavioral perspective. So we expect that people respond to their needs by making demands upon their government and their representatives.
But this moment has really shown me very personally how much uncertainty plays into our own decision-making in the political realm. When we face so much uncertainty about the nature of the threat, the way it can unfold, who it will affect, who it will not affect, and what kinds of reactions-- policy reactions-- will be most effective, it's very difficult to make the kinds of decisions that we would normally equate with policymaking preferences.
So when we feel this level of uncertainty and threat so personally, we really see the different ways in which policy can be shaped around the world in response to manipulation of threat or the use of threat to get people on the side of a particular ruler and the ways in which pandemics really put this question of uncertainty into stark relief.
We can see how people across the globe look to different sources of information and messaging to cope in these times. And so all of the underlying assumptions that we take in terms of people's ability to respond to public policy decisions are put into question. Thanks for the opportunity to speak today, and wishing everyone much health and well-being.
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Rachel Beatty Riedl, a Cornell University expert in international studies, says Africa is the first place to look for an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, given Africa’s success in dealing with Ebola. Riedl directs the Einaudi Center for International Studies and is the John S. Knight Professor of International Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Government. Her research interests include institutional development in new democracies, local governance and decentralization policy, focused on sub-Saharan Africa.