The rise and fall of global health issues: an arenas model applied to the COVID-19 pandemic shock
Smith, Stephanie L.
Shawar, Yusra R.
Shroff, Zubin C.
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Background The global health agenda is ill-defined as an analytical construct, complicating attempts by scholars and proponents to make claims about the agenda status of issues. We draw on Kingdon’s definition of the agenda and Hilgartner and Bosk’s public arenas model to conceptualize the global health agenda as those subjects or problems to which collectivities of actors operating nationally and globally are paying serious attention at any given time. We propose an arenas model for global health agenda setting and illustrate its potential utility by assessing priority indicators in five arenas, including international aid, pharmaceutical industry, scientific research, news media and civil society. We then apply the model to illustrate how the status of established (HIV/AIDS), emergent (diabetes) and rising (Alzheimer’s disease) issues might be measured, compared and change in light of a pandemic shock (COVID-19). Results Coronavirus priority indicators rose precipitously in all five arenas in 2020, reflecting the kind of punctuation often caused by focusing events. The magnitude of change varied somewhat by arena, with the most pronounced shift in the global news media arena. Priority indicators for the other issues showed decreases of up to 21% and increases of up to 41% between 2019 and 2020, with increases suggesting that the agenda for global health issues expanded in some arenas in 2020— COVID-19 did not consistently displace priority for HIV/AIDS, diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease, though it might have for other issues. Conclusions We advance an arenas model as a novel means of addressing conceptual and measurement challenges that often undermine the validity of claims concerning the global health agenda status of problems and contributing causal factors. Our presentation of the model and illustrative analysis lays the groundwork for more systematic investigation of trends in global health agenda setting. Further specification of the model is needed to ensure accurate representation of vital national and transnational arenas and their interactions, applicability to a range of disease-specific, health systems, governance and policy issues, and sensitivity to subtler influences on global health agenda setting than pandemic shocks.