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PIIRS supports new faculty initiative on the handling of COVID-19 crisis internationally

By Pooja Makhijani, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

“The State and COVID,” a new faculty initiative supported by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), will bring together faculty from across a range of disciplines to explore the significance of state capacity — bureaucratic expertise of the state, leadership, and the relationship of the state to its citizens — and understand why COVID-19 is ravaging some countries more than others. The initiative will receive up to $75,000 from PIIRS over the next three years to support research and conferences.

Miguel Centeno, Musgrave Professor of Sociology, Professor of Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), and vice dean at SPIA; Atul Kohli, David K.E. Bruce Professor of International Affairs and professor of politics and international affairs at SPIA; Grigore Pop-Eleches, professor of politics and international affairs at SPIA; Deborah Yashar, professor of politics and international affairs at SPIA, lead the initiative.

Three questions will drive the group’s research: Why are some leaders able to mobilize effective state action and not others? How important are a state’s prior organizational and bureaucratic capacities in the success of state actions? Under what conditions do citizens cooperate with state directions and edicts?

“A number of caveats ought to be kept in mind,” the researchers cautioned in their proposal. “The quality of data from some countries is better than from others; the shape of COVID continues to shift rapidly across the world, suggesting that our understanding will need to be updated regularly. Our analytical efforts are only exploratory at this early stage.” However, the initiative hopes to undertake a comparative analysis of a range of countries, which will help explain not only typical patterns, but also atypical outcomes characterized by extreme success or failure in combating COVID-19.

The initiative will build on expertise in this topic, as well as existing links between Princeton researchers and institutions. In an earlier research project, Princeton and a series of partners established a global network of scholars to analyze the origins and consequences of state capacity. From this collaboration, Centeno, Kohli and Yashar produced “States in the Developing World,” a series of case studies focused on a variety of issue-areas where state capacity might be important. According to the researchers, COVID-19 represents a fresh opportunity to apply their insights to a very specific set of outcomes, as well as to extend them beyond the Global South. The research interests of Pop-Eleches will allow the team to broaden their research focus to include European and other industrial countries.

The initiative currently hosts bi-weekly Zoom seminars to gain broad understandings of how their Princeton colleagues and other experts are approaching these topics; an in-person workshop is planned for late spring or summer 2022, and an in-person conference in spring 2023.

“There are many who are studying the global aspects of COVID, including how it spreads and what it does to human bodies,” Centeno said. “We are interested not in how COVID may be the same across the world, but how the response to it has varied across different societies and stages. Why did some countries have lower initial infection rates? Why did some succeed better in immunization? COVID offers a natural experiment with which to open the ‘black box’ of the state and address why states have adopted and implemented different policies to address this devastating pandemic.”