It is three years since, on 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Veronica Anghel conducts a retrospective analysis of the impact of the pandemic on Europe. Did the political science profession rise to the challenge of recording its effects?
The first European lockdowns were initiated on 21 February 2020, covering ten municipalities in two northern Italian provinces. It wasn’t long before lockdowns and quarantines were adopted throughout European member states, and globally. These decisions exposed tensions between different levels of governance, between elites and the population, and between different segments of the population.
In a first phase, policymakers at national level refused to accept the need for a centralised strategy. Instead, they focused on apparent immediacy of response rather than effectiveness. They imposed local lockdowns when it was clear that the virus was present in different parts of a country. Then, they imposed national lockdowns when it was obvious that the virus had already spread internationally. Many policymakers hoarded personal protective equipment, banned the shipment of respirators, and looked for ways to gain national control over critical multinational supply chains.
Pandemic containment measures exposed tensions between different levels of government, and between elites and ordinary citizens
Yet, soon enough, the pandemic pressed the EU to find a unified policy. It needed to better protect the single market from international financial uncertainty, and to compete with other international actors to secure vaccine availability.
Articles and special issues on how the EU evolved under the pressures of the pandemic have appeared in virtually every political science journal. See examples in JEPP, West European Politics, East European Politics, Government and Opposition, Journal of European Integration, etc. The Loop curates its own collection of Covid-19 related articles.
In a JEPP article with Erik Jones, we argued that the pandemic increased the European Union’s ‘actorness’ and, ultimately, cross-national solidarity. The piece also highlighted the European Union’s capacity for institutional adaptation.
In the edited volume Developments in European Politics 3, we invited contributors to assess how Europe has dealt with the various challenges of the last decade. We concluded (p.200) that the European project came out of the pandemic looking better than it did going into it. The same may not necessarily be said of reactions to the Russia-Ukraine war, where member states have clung to the spotlight for longer.
Often, however, the adaptations required by the pandemic challenged core values that the EU professes to uphold. These include freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and the prioritisation of human rights, at least in the short term. Numerous investigations showed that pandemic-related emergency politics aggravated the situation in EU countries already experiencing democratic erosion. The effect was more pronounced than in countries with stronger democratic norms.
Adaptations required by the pandemic often challenged core values the EU professes to uphold
In a different study, we investigated how national political elites used the pandemic opportunistically to solve unrelated political issues. In the process, they increased the fragility of democracy. We show that these changes in institutional balances are important because of the potential for abuse they represent.
This is true in countries that have undergone periods of autocratisation. However, it is also true in countries like Romania and Italy, which suffered long periods of stagnation and where popular frustration with political elites is high. We investigated these countries and show that they are vulnerable to destabilisation because their prolonged institutional dysfunction creates opportunities for political leaders to make significant institutional changes as part of their crisis response. A lot depends upon who rises to high office and how they use their increased authority. The recent election of Giorgia Meloni as Italy's Prime Minister has generated even more fears for the future of Italian democracy.
Pandemic policies and citizens’ behaviour represent another crucial area of study. Political scientists have contributed to special collections on the effects of the pandemic on attitudes and preferences in Social Science Quarterly, the European Journal of Political Research, and the British Journal of Political Science, to name only a few.
In an experiment with Julia Schulte-Cloos, we manipulated individuals' cognitive accessibility of Covid-related fears to establish whether those fears augmented illiberal attitudes. Our study focused on case studies from the fragile democracies of Central and Eastern Europe because it was important to understand how EU citizens in this region would exit the pandemic.
In countries like Hungary and Romania, the increase in illiberal attitudes would have been most worrying given the absence of strong counterbalancing democratic institutions. We showed that such emotions do not exert secondary effects on individuals' levels of right-wing authoritarianism, nationalism or outgroup hostility. We also showed that Covid fears do not affect preferences for specific discriminatory policy measures aimed at fighting a potential resurgence of the virus.
Some studies show that the pandemic experience increased citizens' trust in government
This study was preceded and followed by others that dispelled several types of concerns regarding the effect of Covid-19. Such studies showed that the pandemic experience increases citizens' trust in government. It also increases their satisfaction with democracy and interpersonal trust. Other studies show that the pandemic did not demobilise citizens or affect pre-existing political and civic engagement patterns. Nor did it replace public concern about the climate crisis.
Covid containment policies affected citizens, states and supranational structures such as the EU in myriad ways. Political scientists in all subfields of research investigated how and why. Their efforts remain important for policy-makers who aim to predict the political effects of imminent future epidemics. Such studies are also crucial to continuously update our understanding of how the EU reacts to crisis.
Not least, the intensive study of Covid-19 serves to monitor changes in patterns of democratic consolidation across different countries. Areas of concern remain, and most are related to pre-pandemic patterns. Nevertheless, numerous studies now permit some reassurance, if not sighs of relief, at how Europe and its citizens exited the pandemic three years since it all began.