Management of the pandemic affects citizens’ political and social trust

La gestió de la pandèmia afecta la confiança política i social de la ciutadania

The second MDAE seminar discussed the effect of crises on democracy and freedoms

On Wednesday 22 June, Diplocat organised a second seminar in the series on COVID-19 and its global and European impact in conjunction with the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI) as part of the MDAE alumni network. The seminar was entitled Health, Democracy and Freedom: The Ethical-Political Dilemmas of the Pandemic.

The event was introduced by Jacint Jordana, director of the IBEI, and Laura Foraster, Secretary General of Diplocat. They both expressed their satisfaction at continuing the seminar series to further explore issues of debate that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore. They also took advantage of the occasion to report that the seminar series will be resumed with new scheduled sessions after the month of September. Furthermore, Foraster remarked on how important it is to Diplocat to continue providing training in topics related to international relations and public diplomacy.

Débora Miralles, a graduate of the first MDAE and a Senior Policy Advisor at the Directorate General for Strategic Analysis and Planning for Foreign Action at the Ministry of Foreign Action, Institutional Relations and Transparency, acted as the moderator. The seminar was delivered by Francesc Amat, researcher at the Institutions and Political Economy Research Group (IPERG) at the University of Barcelona and Junior Leader Fellow at La Caixa.

The democratic effects of crises

Amat presented the initial results of a study he is conducting in conjunction with Andreu Arenes, Albert Falcó-Gimeno and Jordi Muñoz entitled "Pandemic and Democracy: Experimental Evidence of Governing Dilemmas". This study analyses the answers to the questions on a survey administered in different waves from January to June 2020.

Before sharing the results of the study, Amat reminded the participants that crises are negative shocks but also windows of opportunity which democracies have not yet had to deal with, and that they are interesting to study precisely because they are new. He revealed that this shock can indeed have an effect on politics and society if individuals' preferences constantly change.

He also analysed the fact that crises can be seen as negative externalities. These externalities can be dealt with in two ways: with citizen coordination, cognisant that there will be people who don't participate (free riders), or through coercive action. The problem with the first option is social and political trust. Amat stated that social trust in Spain is lower than the European average and that political trust is among the lowest in Europe. As he explained in the question and answer session, this meant that Spain's coercive response was the only possible option.

The analysis of the results revolved around 4 major strands which he deemed interesting when assessing the effects of this unprecedented crisis. They are: the preference in terms of the government response, either national or European; the shift in preferences towards a more technocratic governance; the relationship between the effect of having been in contact with the virus and political trust; and the impact on rights and freedoms and political leadership.

The presentation showed how they had compared COVID-19 with other global threats like climate change and terrorism in order to identify the population's tendencies in the management of COVID. The results showed that there is a clear preference for COVID to be handled on a national level.

Professor Amat also highlighted that the study revealed a clear correlation between people who have experienced COVID-19 firsthand and a greater acceptance of authoritarian governments. They also found that the response to the COVID-19 crisis shows higher levels of acceptance of policies and actions that limit individuals' rights and freedoms in exchange for protection from the pandemic compared to the other aforementioned threats. Moreover, the study showed that there is a preference for technocratic governments led by subject-matter experts more than for regimes more led by politicians.

Next, he presented the trilemma posed in the title of the talk between health, economics and rights and freedoms. Amat stated that there is no need to choose for the time being, but that perhaps Spain may have to do what other countries have in the long term. He cited as examples the Swedish model, which prioritised the economy and rights and freedoms over health, and the Asian model, which did away with individuals' rights and freedoms by imposing coercive policies that proved extremely important in combatting the virus.

Their study created a model to determine the effects of the trilemma in Spain, which found that there truly is no preference for any of the options. Nonetheless, Amat mentioned a very important point of convergence: the tendencies of supporters of the current government to allow and accept government coercion and violations of rights and freedoms. This tendency is worrisome given that there is a theory that this could lead to a deterioration in the system because a failure to abide by the rules is not punished, and this favours government actions without parliamentary control, which could actually endanger the very democratic system itself.

In the conclusions, he stated that this crisis could pose a threat to democracy in two ways. The first is the aforementioned change in society's preferences, and the second is that these changes give an opportunity for authoritarian, populist leaders to expand their power without parliamentary or democratic control, as Viktor Orban has tried to do in Hungary. Nonetheless, he believes that this tendency of populist leaders may not work well if the crisis has been poorly managed, and they may pay the price and perhaps even lose power.

To conclude, a question and answer session was held, during which Amat answered several questions on the methodology used in the study and provided further information on the effect that the political management of the pandemic had on citizens' social and political trust.

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