The COVID-19 pandemic has progressed rapidly, changing the world and the way we interact. It is triggering traumatic processes globally, and revealing profound structural failures in leadership, public institutions and societal forms of organization. It is also producing a new normal that affects, in a very asymmetric way, urban and rural communities, regardless of the countries’ rates of development.
In a short period, the fragility of human beings became the center of a collective mood. The uncertainty of this new disease has challenged the agri-food industry, health systems incapable of offering universal care, public transportation and supply systems, as well as the economy, in a widespread manner. It has produced the worst effects among the most vulnerable people: the elderly, people with health deficiencies, ethnic minorities, migrants, asylum seekers, disadvantaged neighborhoods, unaccompanied minors and the disabled. We are now accustomed to quarantine as a strategy to manage risk, but the confinement also demonstrates further endemic problems including hate crimes, child abuse, and sexual and gender-based violence.
The limits of public institutions and private sectors can now be pushed towards new consensus, bridges, and proposals. Institutions should regain integrity in order to incentivize cooperation among people and inspire a sense of dignity, safety and security. They are legitimate actors to encourage interactions, strengthen the sense of community, develop emotional support networks and promote solidarity. Traditional leadership must make way for leadership with a transversal approach to design, implement, evaluate and adjust public policies that would carry out inclusive participatory processes oriented toward overall wellbeing.
Although the existing scenario of multilateral cooperation has left little room to evoke the social idealism of Thomas More, Henri de Saint-Simon or Robert Owen, and even less for the utopian perspective of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, can we not use this pandemic as an opportunity to rethink governance, and work toward a wellbeing utopia for all citizens? We have an opportunity to create frameworks for public policies and to orient stakeholders based on three criteria: a) the socioemotional aspects of individuals; b) the social dynamics of interdependence and collective interactions; and c) the promotion of trust, empathy, solidarity, equality and inclusion.
A restructuring of geopolitics and public diplomacy strategies goes hand in hand with how countries manage this new global situation. In these efforts, all actors must remain attentive to, and prioritize, the wellbeing of their communities.
A comprehensive institutional approach to wellbeing
Throughout the new normal, we are witnessing that improved measures can be achieved only if different fields and levels of the administrations work together for the public interest. We propose that fostering social wellbeing as a central aspect of public policies can generate collaborative dynamics among different levels of decision makers. Key objectives of this strategy include the reinforcement of global, regional and national decisions, to positively impact citizens and communities, and for them to have the proper channels to participation in policymaking.
Since the last century, political actors have had tools at their disposal to measure public opinion and to influence levels of fear or joy, but little was done to incorporate emotions as part of government effectiveness. Apart from some short-term management, there is still a lack of policy research on emotions and their role in encouraging responsible and participatory citizenship.
Citizenship cannot be separated from social positions, relationships, sense of belonging and other elements that influence individual experiences. This kind of approach means permanent negotiation within local contexts, and dialogue with socioemotional sensitivity, connecting all actors in the community. It is valuable to build bridges among diverse groups, and as such to identify what is needed in public policies.
For example, each social policy initiative should consider the relevance of a full range of economic, personal and sociocultural factors that influence individuals’ potential wellbeing: income; subjective characteristics; socially developed traits; how we decide to spend our time; hobbies, entertainment, attitudes and beliefs towards self/others/life; relationships; and the wider economic, social and political environment.  Some authors use the concept of Subjective Well-being (SWB). See: Dolan, P., Peasgood, T., & White, M. (2007). «Do we really know what makes us happy? A review of the economic literature on the factors associated with subjective well-being.» Journal of Economic Psychology, 29(1), 94-122.
Good governance should seek to understand what makes a determined program work, why it is successful or unsuccessful, how to communicate results, and how it can be improved. Indeed, efforts to improve policy research require building systems that work to embed key normative principles regarding their utilization into policy processes that promote the good governance of evidence.
Sensitive leadership is also required to develop a wellbeing public policy. Such leadership not only recognizes problems and openly discusses possible solutions, but also engages in an «in house» debate among counterparts within government bodies, according to each country’s legal system.
This is a complex task, though by diversifying it with different types of analysis, whether of institutions, social policies, gender or political economy, a more comprehensive understanding of complex realities can result. At the end, it is a matter of promoting real democracy in the existing institutional apparatus. Deep trust in democracy demands coordination, transparency, justice, accountability, participation and solidarity.
Wellbeing should be the epicenter of a new public policy approach: it should be incorporated into key legal frameworks, have a cross-cutting nature in national budget allocations, and incorporate regional and local similarities and common objectives, while simultaneously respecting differences. People are happier when social cohesion is established, when they possess sufficient preparation to make key decisions, when they have the possibility to dedicate their time with and for others in whom they place trust, and when they feel a sense of belonging in their communities and countries, or share cosmopolitan values that celebrate otherness.
Revisiting the approach to social rights
And so, we understand that society and its wellbeing should be the center of cross-cutting and comprehensive public policies. This invites a reflection on the current public policy approach and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to outline some proposals for the redesign of social rights.
Luckily, we are also facing calls for a new social contract, in which social rights should be removed from the orbit of financial interests and given the status they deserve as a common interest priority, enhancing cooperation and coordination among various levels of government.
Social interactions take place within constant regulations of time, space and energy in all available forms, and the operation of these elements define living conditions: health, food security, employment, education, and poverty, among others. These are mutually affected by government policies and political stability, which should guarantee the principle of symmetry in the management of these processes, and ultimately provide universal access to social rights.
1. Health and wellbeing
COVID-19 is exposing the systematic shortcomings of delivering health to diverse communities around the world, as well as the profound regional differences in what is understood to be a public obligation. While most countries include health in their legal frameworks as a fundamental pillar of societal functioning, countries that downplayed the threat demonstrate little evidence that they can protect their populations from global events like this one. Moreover, widespread need for medical equipment caused tension in international relations, as public diplomacy was pushed aside, and the situation was manipulated in domestic political and electoral agendas.
Luckily, we are also facing calls for a new social contract, in which social rights should be removed from the orbit of financial interests and given the status they deserve as a common interest priority, enhancing cooperation and coordination among various levels of government. Populations that enjoy access to healthcare can experience enhanced quality of life, social inclusion, poverty reduction and (in combination with other living conditions) political stability. Poor health is one of the key barriers to successful public policies.  For an example related to multi-level cooperation: Krech, R., & Buckett, K. (2010). «The Adelaide Statement on Health in All Policies: moving towards a shared governance for health and well-being.» Health Promotion International, 25(2), 258–260. https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/daq034
Setbacks in health, such as the anti-vaccination movement, have also demonstrated that implementation of health programs delivers better results if dealing with a well-informed community. Concepts such as «herd immunity» might be unfamiliar to the majority of citizens, but the essential need for vaccines in prevention of epidemics could be perfectly communicated through campaigns, which could achieve both public health results and facilitate a pedagogical discussion about individual freedom and collective responsibility. Individuals become citizens only when they are aware of the benefits they inherited from collective achievement to date, and accept their duties within their society.
Unfortunately, while responsibility has not been limited to governments, they have often been accountable for downplaying the gravity of the issue and delaying the deployment of urgent policies for the improvement of wellbeing. They should now step up to the present challenges, committing budgets, allocating resources and reviewing legal frameworks that compel institutions to work in coordination. COVID-19 is a sample of the magnitude of impact, and geographic reach, of future disruptions.
2. Education and lifelong learning
Likewise, when considering comprehensive approaches to engagement and participation, another essential area of public policy is education. Its ultimate purpose is to foster development, to promote collaboration and, more recently, to prepare individuals for a society in constant motion. Education takes place throughout a wide range of contexts both within and beyond classrooms. Formal and informal situations allow for the accumulation of cultural capital and skills for a social life: participatory activities within communities, families and schools, and recognizing the role that feelings and emotions play in their construction. «It takes a village to educate a child,» as the African proverb goes, refers to how the community shapes an individual’s experiences and growth. Either in a local village or in McLuhan’s global village, children need healthy and safe environments, as each individual, stakeholder, community or institution should play a role in education.
Living in a knowledge society, education policies should apply not only to educators, students and families, but to everyone, as lifelong learners. This also means that work can be complemented by activities such as volunteering, mediation and social activities, considered the most rewarding and pleasurable way to spend time. Nevertheless, as the current need for quarantine has shown, education is restricted by physical and digital spaces, and access to it is still extremely unequal. We must work towards rectifying this and educate regarding wellbeing as a global conception, along with the recognition, preservation and revaluation of cultural heritage, ancestral traditions, values and customs, as well as multiethnic diversity.
As Paulo Freire has noted in his pedagogy of the oppressed, human emancipation depends on education; it depends on instruction and intelligence to overcome unsatisfactory conditions and to subvert domination. It includes integration of socioemotional understanding, languages, sciences, arts, philosophy, or health, as well as teaching practices like cooperative learning and project-based learning  Several initiatives can be found among civil society organizations. One example includes the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), (2017) «Core Socio-Emotional Learning competencies.» http://www.casel.org/core-competencies/, in various settings.
Education is a permanent process that changes people, making the world a more fair and dignified place. It instills the hope of overcoming the existing social configuration, and fuels the pursuit of a better wellbeing. On the other hand, policy interventions must be dynamic, incorporating the institutional, intellectual and emotional tools required to endorse global citizenry.
3. Food security, urban and rural spaces, and flows
Food security is so closely linked with wellbeing that its deterioration has been a defining factor in social uprisings. Malnutrition affects educational performance, psychosocial function and psychological health. Most countries are not capable of meeting their own demand, and proper access to food is vulnerable to supply chain disruptions in the face of global crisis scenarios. Economic interest, natural processes, anthropic impacts, as well as economic and geopolitical decisions are the main factors that control costs of production, distribution and delivery of products to final consumers.
In response to lockdowns and restrictive measures throughout the world, widespread efforts in local food production have taken place. Urban cultivation of vegetables and other edibles has been undertaken not only to reduce exposure to COVID-19, but also because it is perceived as a mechanism for self-sustainability in the event of a production and distribution chain collapse. Beyond the optimization of farming production that represents the greatest supply, urban food systems have produced a variety of results in different cities, and many initiatives  Cretella, A. (2019). «Alternative food and the urban institutional agenda: Challenges and insights from Pisa.» Journal of Rural Studies, 69(March), 117–129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2019.04.005 are thought to have positive effects on democracy and participation. These kinds of policies, when integrated across government, social and economic sectors, are rooted in bottom up participation schemes capable of reducing food security vulnerability.
4. Housing and human habitat
A comprehensive approach to wellbeing in health, education and nutrition interventions must also consider the accessibility and allocation of safe environments. The living environment is a fundamental aspect of wellbeing, as all living creatures require suitable conditions to be safe and comfortable.
Most of us, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, were enjoined upon to stay home as a measure to flatten the curve of infections. This has instantly placed housing and human habitat in the spotlight. Physical distancing and a variety of lockdowns have been adopted, with the assumption that everyone has adequate conditions of habitability. But what the pandemic is clearly highlighting are structural injustices, deterioration and marginalization, provoked by an urban model that transforms cities into a product. Although this is not a novelty, when we confront the current stages of capital accumulation and increasing precariousness, it becomes clear that access to dignified housing requires strong state interventions. The role of governments should not be limited to granting permits for construction or renovation, nor should it be restricted to issuing credits for low-income populations.
In this vein, every home must have access to basic elements such as water, energy, sewer systems, recreational areas and public transportation. The habitat is where humans grow and learn from nature and society, and as such, housing should be established as a fundamental right, explicitly mentioned in a country’s legal framework and in its most fundamental documents, either in a constitution or the equivalent. Budgets should also reflect this as a priority.
What the pandemic is clearly highlighting are structural injustices, deterioration and marginalization, provoked by an urban model that transforms cities into a product.
Growing up in a healthy environment, versus one affected by violence and deficiency, does have implications for human development. Public policies should consider not only an individual’s cultural, historical and socioeconomic background, but also their conceptions of happiness, and their aspirations alongside societal integration dynamics. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to evaluate, propose and innovate on the design and implementation of cross-cutting, inclusive housing policies that incorporate the participation of inhabitants.
We argue that it is essential to rethink our approach to the policymaking process, which should involve a collaborative vision that assembles individuals, communities and several stakeholders together. Within this perspective, it is pivotal to implement a framework that places wellbeing at its core, informed by research and analysis into social interactions and collective interdependence grounded in the promotion of trust, security, safety and values of empathy and solidarity.
There is a clear need for more policy research on long-term emotional wellbeing. Such analysis, relating psychosocial aspects within a population to the potential intervention of governments, are key to the design and implementation of wellbeing programs that involve participation of several actors and stakeholders.
In order to be effective, this reconfiguration of public policies should take place in the sectors of health, education, nutrition and housing, to mention just a few; local, regional and global actors must be involved. Good health is a direct cause of enhancing quality of life and achieving individual and collective goals. Likewise, education is developed throughout a wide range of contexts and it significantly contributes to the awareness of feelings and emotions. Thirdly, while dietary needs and cultural determinants may vary from region to region and community to community, decent food is fundamental for individual and collective improvements. Within housing sector analysis, it is crucial to rethink housing in matters of accessibility, affordability and design.
In adopting a transversal and inclusive wellbeing agenda, each nation should foster a bidirectional trust agreement, truly soliciting citizen input in determining the outcome of effective governance efforts. Governments, communities and organizations must have reliable data on emotions, as well as research data and conclusions on wellbeing, to promote policies that improve quality of life. Through policies, programs and action, we can advance towards the construction of systems that are sensitive to human needs, conscious that social development goes hand in hand with citizen satisfaction.
The new normal that has emerged, from the combination of an «unpredictable» virus and our most recent stage in inequitable globalization, is a real challenge for democracy and its constituent actors, from local to transnational levels. It is also a task for public diplomacy to define a meaning among these spheres, and to streamline democracy to connect the highest levels of multilateral agreements with community participation. Depending on the measures adopted by each country, they will ultimately fall into one of the following groups:
The first group would be countries that work towards implementing an innovative, humanistic vision, with a more comprehensive view of wellbeing and development, positioning themselves as a global leadership reference. Such a leadership would view this juncture as an opportunity to redefine the current social contract, and place people and their emotions at the center of the policymaking processes. They will most likely position themselves as the leading nations in the newly redefined geopolitics map. They may also use these toolkits and strategic actions within their international cooperation and public diplomacy.
The second consists of those failing in this process, either due to mismanagement or because they lack a minimum level of trust in interacting with society. They can see this as an opportunity for self-criticism, accountability and the redesign of communication and social involvement in decision making. The current situation demonstrates how individuals and communities have experienced mistrust and anger, partly due to contradictory information and improper action or inaction by their leaders and international organizations.
The third group, and least desirable scenario, includes a cluster of nations that failed in managing the whole pandemic and continue denying its effects and consequences, or expect the international community to assist them in resolving situations.
As the pandemic’s damage is already affecting the countries that historically or occasionally made the worst decisions in terms of welfare, we have a unique opportunity to develop agendas of wellbeing, and to exercise our maximum effort in gaining trust. COVID-19 has been identified as one of the worst global crises in history, and is even considered by some as the end of globalization. Paradoxically, it manifests the interdependence among nations, from the way the virus rapidly spreads, to medical and pharmaceutical production and supply chains, to the urgent need for cooperation within the international community to find a vaccine.