Ashley Murphy, Keystone International

Policymakers have been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic, responsible for how countries work individually and together to help halt the spread of the virus. As the current health crisis exposes some of society’s most pressing social issues and deep-rooted inequalities, public policy students and graduates face a scenario unlike anything the world has seen before. Let’s take a look at public policy’s role in shaping a more sustainable future...

Rising inequalities post-COVID

Many historians argue world-shattering events, such as pandemics, wars, and revolutions, are catalysts for greater social equality. During the World Wars and the 1918 flu pandemic, the decrease in the workforce caused by mass death led to an increase in workers’ wages, but that scenario differs substantially from what we’re seeing happen with COVID.

Rather than improve the quality of life of the working class, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the gap between rich and poor and caused a drop in employment rates, ultimately unveiling current inequalities related to race, gender, education, location, and wealth.

While the richest in the world continue getting richer through job stability, rising stock market, and increased real estate prices, lower-class workers have faced concerning levels of job instability caused by many sectors being shut down. However, for essential workers, industries such as healthcare, commerce, and public transport didn’t stop throughout the pandemic, leaving them more exposed to the virus, subject to a higher chance of contamination, and, therefore, higher mortality rates.

The need for capable public service leaders to work on societal inequities

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, public service workers have been met with consecutive challenges: managing and enforcing lockdowns, running testing centers, setting up new emergency care units, and keeping the whole public service sector afloat by adopting new safety measures such as remote working. But while the pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, they aren’t new in any way.

For a while, public administrators have had the responsibility to deal with social inequalities and find solutions for issues so deeply rooted in the system it can be hard to separate one from the other. Increasing poverty, hunger, violence, unemployment, and homelessness rates are the most pressing concerns for public leaders nowadays, but certainly not the only ones. These problems are intrinsically related to one another and have many nuances that need to be considered when possible solutions are being created.

Current and future public service leaders are responsible for changing what makes an unequal society the norm. But the societal issues listed above aren’t what needs to be fixed. They aren’t the problems per se – they are merely symptoms of much deeper problems ingrained in the current social system. “We must understand that creating equal access to an inequitable system does not advance social equity,” says Tracy Evans, President and CEO of the American Public Human Services Association. This means to solve the most pressing and superficial issues we face daily, there needs to be a deep change to the systems currently operating in society.

The role of international public policies

Public administrators were at the forefront of defining what containment measures were taken, and international relations played a crucial role in containing the pandemic in certain regions. Low-income countries have struggled on this front. While North and Latin America have over 70% receiving at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, only 14% of the African population have been at least partly vaccinated. According to the New York Times, nearly “72 percent of shots that have gone into arms worldwide have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Only 0.9 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.”

Different territorial approaches

COVID-19 affected different territories in different ways due to the contrasting approaches different local and federal governments took. Many countries left it up to their states and provinces to set their own pandemic management regulations, making it so that different regions enacted different containment strategies and obtained different results. Cross-border cooperation also remained fundamental during this period, with international borders closing and reopening as the pandemic progressed.

The need for democratizing work

For Julie Battilana, Professor of Social Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School, the COVID-19 pandemic has further proved the need for a remodeling of the workplace as we know it through the implementation of workplace democracy. For the professor, the monopolization of workplaces by capital investors is unfair to workers and unsustainable, as it excludes them from participating in the government of their workplaces. She believes by “giving employees representation in decision-making bodies and the right to participate and control their organization’s strategic decisions, we can collectively build institutions that are truly equitable and fair.”

The Carsey School of Public Policy

The Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire has developed its Master in Public Policy (MPP) with this ethos, of building a better, more equitable future, in mind. Carsey is a renowned school, recognized for its rigorous policy education and research and its drive to make positive change towards a more just and sustainable future.

The Masters in Public Policy is a 16-month program delivered onsite at UNH that prepares its graduates to be future public leaders by developing skills and experience in policymaking. The program’s faculty are experts in their field with connections in high-ranking public and private institutions, allowing students to learn from influential policymakers in Congress, government agencies, advocacy groups, and the White House during the annual trip to Washington, D.C.

The desire to make positive change in the world is common to every Masters in Public Policy student. Libby Schwaner '20, '21G, an MPP alum, current policy analyst at Carsey, and the recipient of the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Awards, says, “I really want to make a difference in communities; I don’t just want my work to be academic, so I saw the MPP program as the perfect way to transition from my academic studies in anthropology into a career path that would really make a difference.”

Carsey has been a constant presence in its community, whether by advocating for Afghan refugees or through initiatives such as NH Listens, which aims to increase civic engagement and facilitate the participation of New Hampshire residents in community decisions. Besides its work outside of the university’s walls, Carsey students are involved in projects ranging from the rights of indigenous peoples, immigration, healthcare, and reform of the legal and incarceration systems.

What's more, all Carsey students receive Financial Aid, with scholarships, fellowships, and education awards available. This was a massive help to graduate Ali Sekou, who hails from a small village in Niger in Africa. He graduated with a master’s from the Carsey School in 2019 with zero debt – something made possible partly due to scholarships he received from the Carsey School. He says, "I am very grateful and thankful for the support, guidance, and scholarship I have received from Carsey."

“Carsey was a great fit for what I wanted to do in life,” he adds. “I wanted to make an impact in our communities. I am very thankful not only to attend the Carsey School of Public Policy, but to land in a healthy community that supports excellence and invests in people that have the drive and the dedication to do well. For me, giving back to the community is a requirement, because the community has given me a lot.”

Meanwhile, Faith Thompson, an MPP student who wants to work in advocacy in healthcare or immigration, says she wants to “give a voice to people who don't have anyone really advocating for them. So whether that's working at a non-profit or lobbying, I hope to just be doing something that will help people in big-picture ways. The way the Carsey scholarship helped me kind of achieve my educational goals was by allowing me to continue my education after my undergrad. Having this Carsey scholarship take care of most of my expenses for this program has just lifted a weight off my shoulders, so that way I can focus solely on my education and focus solely on my goals and work towards those goals in this program.”

Through the program’s expert teaching and professional internship opportunities, graduates are prepared to take on roles as sustainability managers, consultants, non-profit directors, and leadership positions in politics, among many other careers. If you want to push the world forward, you can learn more about the program and application requirements here.

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