Socially Distanced but More Vocal? The Corona Crisis and Political Participation
Forced through by the pandemic, new factors and trends in politics are shaping novel futures for Europe. In Tryptich Europa, a series of texts, our Europe's Futures project partnered with prominent European thinkers Milica Delević, Olivier Fillieule and Mark Leonard in attempting to capture some of the immediate changes to the political landscape.
Inequalities, the role of the state, upholding of rights, digitalization and public health policies are some of the factors influencing trends in political participation in Europe and its extraordinary current political, social and economic predicament.
In a new addition to Tryptich Europa series, Milica Delević argues that it has become clear to citizens that the cost of not participating in the political process in their countries is considerable.
Disillusionment with establishment politics plagued the pre-Corona political world for many years. The rise of right-leaning populist forces, culminating in 2016 with Brexit and the election of President Trump, was largely caused by a disconnect between elites and voters. People turned to parties, which, though they offered deceptively simple (and often wrong) answers, at least appeared to have heard their questions. Others, especially the young, were too disillusioned to vote, either unable to see the benefits of participating in the political process or dissatisfied with what politicians had to offer. Preparing practical policy solutions became increasingly difficult for governments in a polarized political climate, creating a vicious cycle of bad politics leading to bad policy. The result was a crisis of representative democracy, with party membership and affiliation declining, (younger) people less likely to vote, growing scepticism towards democracy, and even an increase in support for authoritarianism.
This was the predominant state of politics when the pandemic hit. Initially, the global pandemic started as a health emergency that threatened people’s lives, but shortly thereafter it morphed into an economic crisis that endangered people’s livelihoods. States intervened and introduced measures to protect both. With the stakes dramatically increased and long-term changes looming, a sense of urgency was instilled into politics. This essay will explore whether this new urgency will make Europeans more politically active and whether it will change the way Europeans in general engage in the political process.
The crisis impacted European populations in a major but unequal way. It created new and energizing existing political constituencies; it empowered states, but also raised people’s expectations of their governments, thus underscoring the importance of trust in institutions and their capacity to deliver. It gave us a sense of shared experience and a common vulnerability, making us appreciate our communities more. At the same time, however, the pandemic also induces fear in people by, among other things, forcing governments to impose more restrictions on our freedoms. Further, the debate on the medical response to the virus is often a confusing mix of expert opinion and political spin. And, while we all seem more connected digitally as a result of the pandemic, this online interaction is not always healthy, as it often is judgemental, shallow, and superficial.
This essay will examine the factors that increase and decrease political participation by focusing on Europe during the global pandemic. It will try to identify possible trends by looking at developments and events across the continent. This essay is a preliminary reflection—the pandemic is, after all, ongoing and it remains to be seen how long the crisis will last and how devastating the consequences of it will be. As such, this essay provides a framework to interpret the events and developments relating to the pandemic in Europe to date. It is written bearing in mind that we are not passive observers, but actors capable of shaping our collective future.
2. Possible factors that lead to greater political participation
Greater societal impetus for political participation is likely to result from a number of trends that were accelerated by the pandemic. These trends include deepening inequality, the rapidly changing nature of work, as well as the greatly enhanced role and responsibilities of the state. These trends reveal existing tensions and create new ones, raising the stakes and making political abstention more problematic, especially during times when new policy solutions will be designed. Because the pandemic represents a shared experience based on common vulnerability and fragility, it could, as a result, also bring people together and contribute to increased political engagement and participation.
2.1 Inequalities deepen and become less acceptable
The pandemic’s impact on vulnerable groups, that is, the elderly, minorities, and low income populations, has been twofold: First, these groups were more susceptible to the virus and experienced higher death rates because they are likelier to live in crowded accommodation, work in front line jobs, have insecure employment, or suffer pre-existing health conditions. Second, vulnerable groups were also more likely to suffer economically, with gig economy workers, women, young people, single parents, and migrants among the particularly hard hit. Two main divides emerged: one caused by age, and the other by the nature of work.
The young, under 30 years old, have been hit particularly hard. Although the category with the lowest health risk from COVID-19, they were still obliged to follow government regulations and isolate in order to prevent the spread of the virus to the more vulnerable. As a result, their education was disrupted and the outlook for employment worsened, especially when it comes to entry-level positions, making it extremely challenging for them to enter the labor market. This comes on top of already generally higher levels of youth unemployment following the 2008-12 financial crisis. In addition, as government spending increases massively to fight the crisis, the young face the prospect of carrying an enormous burden of debt, thus aggravating the impression that their lives are going to be more difficult than those of their parents.
A second divide has been caused by the changing nature of work. The weak social safety nets and the ever-greater risk pushed onto individuals, especially in the gig economy (self- employment, zero-hour contract, disappearance of defined benefit pensions) have been shown to be unsustainable during the crisis. Those with less education and lower incomes were the least able to weather the pandemic; many of those in front-line jobs, defined as “key workers” on whose continued work societies came to depend, fall in this category, including delivery drivers, cleaners, nurses, supermarket and care workers. As economies shrink, the scope for redistributive policies will diminish. This will reduce safety nets, already weakened due to prolonged periods of austerity, and limit policies to mitigate inequality, at a time when they are most needed.
The accelerated transition to a digital world of remote working brought about by the pandemic created additional challenges. The divide between knowledge workers and lower skilled workers deepened, with remote working most suited for the highly skilled and better paid, while many low-skilled jobs are now under threat of being replaced by technology. Women were also among those hit harder, primarily as a result of having to shoulder a disproportionate share of care responsibilities for children now learning from home, as well as caring for the sick and elderly, making it more difficult for women to maintain their employment. Moreover, domestic violence and harassment against women increased during the government mandated quarantine period.
Inequalities are deepening and social tensions rising as a result of the global pandemic, thus creating new and/or mobilizing existing constituencies who want to make their voices heard. Some of them, in particular frontline healthcare workers, who saw societies across the continent express their gratitude by clapping, or delivery drivers and cleaners, whose work was rewarded by tips and gifts in kind, felt empowered by the widespread support they received. For the young, whose future and job prospects were already harmed by the previous economic crises, the pandemic might mark the point after which participation in politics becomes an urgent necessity. The successful mobilization efforts of young climate change activists could be an in inspiring model. The Black Lives Matter protests in Europe, while triggered by events in the US and motivated by a long history of colonialism and racial discrimination, were also fuelled by the inequalities exposed by the crisis. Indeed, numerous countries have reported significantly higher Coronavirus deaths among minority groups. As the crisis continues and the social and economic costs increase, the likelihood that affected groups will mobilize will certainly increase. Even during the pandemic, isolated incidents of strikes by bus drivers, delivery workers, and medics over low pay and unsafe working conditions, like a lack of protective equipment, took place in several countries (for example in Spain, the United Kingdom, and Italy). Further, a surge in trade union membership was reported in some countries (UK, for example), especially among healthcare workers, promising more organized collective action.
Although the situation in individual countries depends on their economic circumstances, on pre-crisis employment levels and labor market conditions, much will ultimately be determined by policy choices that governments will make to address the challenge. In a crisis as deep as the current global pandemic, business as usual is no longer an option. Questions about what the future should look like, who should pay for it, and how risks should be distributed within society so that it can function as a whole remain unanswered. With stakes being so high, the price of non-engagement has rarely been higher.
2.2 The role of the state increased—but so did the expectations
The pandemic arrived at a time when excessive market liberalism with its concept of a minimalist state already ended, and the trend shifted towards a more interventionist state. This tendency was greatly accelerated as a result of the health crisis. National governments were the only actors capable of enforcing far-reaching restrictions to stop the spread of the Coronavirus and of preventing economic collapse through massive public spending programs. This enhanced role of the state is unlikely to be rolled back, once the emergency is over. History shows us that wars and other crises invariably led to a bigger state, with increased powers and responsibilities.
In uncertain times, when risks are high, security becomes a priority. Major crises like the current pandemic highlight the vulnerability of human lives, leaving in their wake a strong aversion to risk. The state intervenes to make individuals feel safer by offering a collective response to the danger. During the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the emphasis was on health security, a task made more difficult in many countries by the inadequacy of healthcare systems that suffered years of austerity and underinvestment. As a consequence, a better, more equitable healthcare system will emerge as a broadly supported policy objective. States also had to provide social security and help share burdens and risks between workers, employers, and taxpayers, exposing the need for a reasonable and effective longer-term arrangement. Finally, states had to ensure the continued functioning of public services, in particular in strategic sectors and goods. Health and education services are traditionally provided by the state in most countries, but an increased role for the state was visible in sectors made "strategic" by the pandemic, like the production of medical supplies and protective equipment.
All of this requires an increase in government spending, likely to be funded through higher taxation and through significantly higher debt. Depending on the kind of political consensus emerging in different countries, the concept of public goods might gain ground and replace the traditional narrow understanding of redistribution. Whatever policy solutions end up being implemented in different countries, demand for greater security and the need to fund it adequately is very likely to mobilize political participation in the years to come.
Managing the pandemic is a complex task, requiring clarity of responsibilities and implementation, with tasks like data management and finance generally being performed at national levels, and other, location-specific issues managed at the regional or local levels. There is plenty of opportunity for disagreement (for example, stricter vs milder restrictions within the UK or even on the construction of a bike lane in Brussels) as well as considerable blame-shifting between the various levels of government. Thus, the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated tensions in several states (UK, Belgium, Spain), and fuelled separatist movements in some of them (Scotland, Catalonia). Similarly, it exacerbated tensions between the governing parties and coalitions and cities/regions run by the opposition (Turkey, Hungary). An increasingly tense political climate is likely to contribute to increased political contention in affected countries.
Finally, at a time when the stakes and people’s expectations are high, the new powers and enhanced responsibilities of states attract much greater public scrutiny. In the early phases of the pandemic, there was a lot of speculation about the alleged superiority of autocracies in managing the crisis. Over time, it transpired that, while some countries did indeed perform better than others, the determining factor was not the type of regime: Some democracies fared well (Germany, South Korea) while some autocracies fared a great deal worse (Brazil, Russia). The factors that make countries successful in responding to the COVID-19 crisis are, according to Francis Fukujama, state capacity, trust, and leadership: Countries with a competent state apparatus, run by trusted governments and effective leaders did much better, while incompetent governments, delusional leaders, and polarized societies performed poorly.
Citizens were quick to react to government incompetence and betrayal of trust – in Serbia, for example, a country thought to have done well in the first phase of the crisis, protests erupted after cases and deaths surged and the extent of data cover up by government officials was revealed to the public. Although most people desire better governance and institutions, not all are convinced that engaging in the political process will bring about impactful change—indeed, many Serbian citizens boycotted elections called in the wake of the “victory” over the virus, as they thought these were unfair or they were unconvinced by what politicians offered in their campaigns. This political apathy can, however, change. As states become more powerful, and assume more responsibilities, failures of governance are costlier—and could, as shown by the pandemic, become a matter of life and death, thus providing an urgent societal impetus for political participation. The first phase of the pandemic, during which fearful citizens generally deferred to the authorities, is now coming to an end. As the full human and economic cost of the crisis becomes better understood and the flaws and mistakes in the governments’ approaches come to light, we are likely to see more unrest and upheaval.
2.3 Shared experience—and shared responsibility
Pandemics, like wars or natural disasters, are major events that impact societies on all levels. They become part of a shared experience, something that leaves a mark in the lives of all of us, regardless of the many other things that separate us. For many, especially in advanced developed economies, who did not, during their lifetimes, experience wars, major outbreaks of violence, communicable diseases or other major shocks that expose human vulnerability and societal fragility, the Corona crisis constitutes a watershed event. This holds true in particular for the young, for whom the pandemic could become a formative experience. Going through this experience together, and learning about and appreciating the important work done by others they previously may not have paid much attention to, namely frontline workers who help keep society functioning, might generate a stronger sense of community overall. A shared feeling of vulnerability and of mutual dependencies might contribute to a feeling of belonging and shared purpose, resulting in a greater willingness of individuals to contribute to their community’s common objectives and greater good.
The pandemic underscored the responsibility we share in a community in an unusually drastic way. In a health emergency, it is not enough for an individual to respect the rules. The entire community needs to do so because without that shared responsibility, everybody is more vulnerable. While extensive and prolonged physical distancing and isolation may result in an erosion of the social fabric, a shared experience of vulnerability can help people express empathy, understanding, and support for each other. In many countries, notably in the UK, where the pandemic brought back memories of the World War II Blitz, volunteering soared during the crisis. Millions of adults took to volunteering in their community, with most intending to carry on after the crisis.
A strong community spirit became an important part of the “national infrastructure” during the crisis. Countries scoring higher on social capital also show higher levels of trust and fare better in fighting the Coronavirus. Strengthening the social sector and, more generally, understanding the importance social capital plays in our societies, is another longer-term policy lesson that should be learnt from the crisis. While the power of “we are all in this together” was eroded by inequalities (some were in houses with gardens or second homes, others in crowded accommodation; some working from home, others having to go to work; some enjoying benefits of social security, while others were left without paid sick leave or insurance coverage), the pandemic still contributed to a sense of the collective by demonstrating that one’s actions indeed matter for everyone. Once citizens consider the situation of others, even if in the context of societal resilience as a whole and thus motivated by their own interest, they may be more open to engage in the political process as a result.
Another way in which the crisis may lead to greater political engagement is that it forced us to become “citizens of somewhere”—as opposed to globalized "citizens of nowhere," as famously described by the former British Prime Minister Theresa May. During the crisis, while we could have interacted with friends around the world and remotely worked from home for an employer in a different country, all of us “belonged” to where we were isolating. Geography determined identity to a greater extent than national or ethnic background. This may lead us to re-evaluate identities, including how we define "others." Those with whom we share geography become more acceptable, despite possibly being of a different ethnicity, while those who come from elsewhere, even if they share our ethnicity, are seen as a potential health risk, a phenomenon experienced by diasporas returning to their home countries at the start of the pandemic.
While the attitude towards “the others” sharing geography with us might change towards a greater tolerance and acceptance, the fear of those coming from abroad is likely to increase and trigger political action. Restrictions on travel and precarious labour market conditions are making lives difficult for migrant workers, forcing them to choose where they belong. This place of belonging is likelier to be the home country for the lower skilled, and the host country for the higher skilled, better paid, and socially more secure worker.
3. Factors working against mobilization
The crisis also unleashed powerful forces that can make political participation and engagement more difficult. Some of these forces, although discussed above as factors that increase political participation, can also have the opposite effect. For instance, while a shared experience of crisis can generate a stronger feeling of community, fear can also make us more selfish and suspicious of others. Some of these forces are also part of longer-term worrisome trends, like the curtailment of rights and freedoms and the shrinking space for civil society.
3.1 Fear, selfishness, and curtailment of rights
As the pandemic spread across the world, fear gripped societies everywhere. All countries, irrespective of their size, international standing, and economic strength, went through a profound shock. People were afraid of the virus, of losing their jobs and economic security, of disruption of supplies, and of an uncertain and ominous future. In some ways, fear was stronger in economically more advanced countries, which had not experienced disruption on this scale in their recent past, and whose citizens had taken the smooth functioning of state and society for granted. In states that had gone through trauma within living memory, like state dissolution or wars, the populations appeared more resilient.
Initially, people responded to the pandemic with defensive and at times irrational steps, such as stockpiling food, hygienic and medical supplies, triggering a cycle of empty supermarket shelves, shortages and more panic buying. Societies seized up, even crime rates declined dramatically. While this initial phase is over, the future remains at best uncertain and at worst bleak. With recurring waves of the virus likely, and with no prospects for a return to normality before a vaccine or effective treatment is found, most people will continue to focus primarily on themselves and their families. Further, fear of contagion often leads to suspicion and animosity. We are, for example, already seeing strong reactions provoked by people not wearing masks and by those exhorting others to observe social distancing. Measures to protect the vulnerable can create a perception of an unfair burden imposed on the less vulnerable. In case of a prolonged crisis, a closed and defensive mindset marked by selfishness and distrust towards others may take hold. Such an erosion of trust and solidarity is likely to stifle political participation. A seemingly endless crisis, with its collateral damage in many parts of life, can result in fatalism that makes people believe that political engagement is futile, as there are no good outcomes.
Containing the spread of the Coronavirus led to the lockdown of billions of people across the world and the severe restriction of their civil liberties, unlike anything yet seen in peacetime. Various countries dealt with the global pandemic differently, according to their particular traditions and political cultures. With a stronger tradition of liberalism, Britain, for instance, tended initially to rely on voluntary action by people, with the police struggling to find the right level of enforcement. States with a more robust government presence in society, like France, Italy, and Spain, enforced containment measures in a stricter way and faced less criticism from the public. Despite these differences, the temporary curtailment of rights during the pandemic probably does not pose a longer-term threat to political participation in well-established democracies. Indeed, as the crisis moves into the next stage and citizens assess the health and economic outcomes, we are likely to see an increased demand from citizens for scrutiny of democratic politics. In some countries, public inquiries into the handling of the emergency have been announced. As the restrictions were gradually relaxed, thousands of people took to the streets in Berlin and Stuttgart in early August, protesting about the government-imposed measures like the mandatory wearing of facemasks in certain public spaces.
The situation is more worrying in countries where authoritarian tendencies were present before the pandemic and where restrictive measures could become a “new normal” and a longer-term hindrance to political participation. In these countries, leaders invoked executive powers with little concern for proportionality and transparency; solidifying their power, they further weakened checks and balances. Hungary’s parliament, in the early days of the emergency, handed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the right to rule by decree without parliamentary oversight. While the parliament voted to end the state of emergency in June, a new law creating a state of medical emergency affords the government similar powers. The space for independent media and freedom of expression shrank, as “fighting disinformation about the health crisis” provided governments with new excuses to investigate or arrest journalists. In Turkey, a law establishing control over social media and critical content was passed in July, additionally restricting the space for opposition politicians, journalists, and activists to make their voices heard. All this makes political participation more difficult in the short-term. However, by adding to the tension and frustration in society, it could eventually provoke a backlash and lead to more engagement in the future.
As the crisis progresses, governments increasingly rely on surveillance and contact tracing, including the use of big data. The potential for government abuse of these measures is high, especially in countries where they are implemented without transparency and oversight. Without adequate safeguards, such measures may result in discrimination and infringe on privacy. If a culture of surveillance is established these techniques may also be deployed for purposes that go beyond the pandemic response, sowing fear and distrust among citizens towards their government, likely decreasing their political participation as a result.
3.2 “Medicalization of the society” and the stifling effect of technocracy
To manage the pandemic, scientific competence and expertise is needed. In the early days of the crisis, scientists and virologists were omnipresent, a phenomenon described by Evans as the “medicalization of society”. Every government was keen to show that their response to the emergency was guided by the best scientific advice. While this may be reassuring in the short term, in the longer-term an excessively technocratic approach to major societal challenges carries considerable risks. In particular, it can create a false sense of security and it might deter citizens from engaging in the political process.
This new “enlightened dictatorship” of virologists and immunologists is the latest addition to other well-established forms of technocratic, depoliticized forms of decision-making. To some extent, ceding power to technocrats may have been inevitable given the pressures of globalisation and the complexity of modern life. However, as Hans Kundnani has noted, it has also been one of the main reasons behind the rise of populism, because people who can no longer comprehend how and why important decisions are taken, tend to reject mainstream politics altogether and turn to populist leaders peddling simple (and usually false) solutions.
The comeback of the expert during the Corona crisis at first offered hope that rationality and competence will return to politics and bring the populist trend to an end. And in the initial months, there was an increase in support for fact-based politics. But as the crisis persists, this gain in confidence seems to be slipping away, due to at least four factors:
First, it is difficult to measure “success” in fighting the Coronavirus. While comparisons with other countries provide a measure of objectivity, there is still room for interpretation, as we see with different methodologies used to establish the number of casualties. As the health crisis continues and the economic damage increases, the population suffers “COVID-19-fatigue”, growing impatient and critical, even in countries that managed the initial stage of the crisis well.
Second, the science of fighting epidemics is in itself highly complex and often lacks the kind of certainty that would assure the layperson. Even eminent virologists sometimes disagree with each other about aspects of the Coronavirus. But if there are multiple “truths” about outcomes and causes of the virus, trust towards authorities will decline and conspiracy theories will abound, such as linking 5G networks to the spread of the virus or the ideas propagated by the anti-AGavaccine movements.
Third, it turned out in the course of the crisis that hiding behind scientists was counterproductive and unsustainable for governing officials. It became more and more evident to the public that the decisions balancing health, economic, and other risks were political, rather than strictly scientific, in nature. Some politicians were alleged to choose the science that best served their immediate political interests, their ideological standpoint, or their country’s political culture. Even as scientific opinion converged, the need for political leaders to explain the measures and the outcomes remained. Accurate, objective, and balanced information is a crucial way of giving people agency. Ensuring a clear understanding of the stakes and the issues is the best way to encourage public participation and engagement. This can only be achieved in a context where the state, medical scientists, and the public enjoy some degree of mutual trust and respect. Countries like Germany, where the politicians resisted the temptation to hide behind scientists, accepted their responsibility and explained their decisions. By doing so, Germany made an important investment into a healthier and more participative political process.
4. Digitalization—a mixed bag
The impact of digitalization on political participation is likely to be mixed. Technological innovations certainly create enormous opportunities for greater citizen engagement, be it by revitalizing existing forms of political engagement or by helping develop alternative ones. The current crisis has, however, demonstrated the risks of the digital revolution and the challenges faced by electoral and media regulators. Without adequate rules to guarantee free and fair elections and a meaningful political discourse, the net effect may be negative.
Digitalization and an accelerated shift of all aspects of life online has been one of the major consequences of the Corona crisis. As people were ordered to stay at home and large parts of global activity slowed down or stopped, life moved online and continued in new forms. Work moved from offices to online platforms like Zoom and WebEx, as did schools and universities with their teaching. Online shopping at Amazon and similar websites increased, fitness went from gyms to YouTube, and news migrated from television studios to social media. Keeping in touch and socializing was done through various platforms like Houseparty, WhatsApp, Viber, and FaceTime. Even theatres and concerts went virtual. Politics similarly suffered disruptions and followed suit in trying to shift online.
As many elections worldwide were postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and power shifted to the executive, parliamentary scrutiny and oversight became more important but more difficult to exercise. Parliaments around the world had to adjust to the new reality. Some went entirely digital, using remote technology to ensure all members could take part in parliamentary work, including voting. Others opted to adopt parliamentary decisions with a reduced number of members while ensuring the various political groups were proportionally represented. Committee meetings on balance proved easier to organize using digital tools than plenary sittings. The pandemic thus led to some rapid innovation, which will, to some extent, remain after the pandemic is behind us. But a full shift to a virtual way of working seems unrealistic for representative democracy, as most parliaments are firmly rooted in the oral tradition. Indeed, in the UK, there were reports of senior Conservatives calling for all MPs to be allowed to return to the House of Commons, as they were concerned with their leader’s performance in an empty chamber.
Activism also went digital. Online protests took place in some countries, like Poland and Germany. Thunberg and other young climate activists launched “Talks for Future” webinars, as they were unable to engage in their usual Friday demonstrations. Even traditional parties like the Labour Party in the UK scheduled “Call Keir” events allowing citizens to “virtually” meet the new party leader. Many civil society organisations found creative ways to use the internet in order to organize volunteering and charity during quarantine and to advocate on behalf of local communities.
These developments resulted in a dramatically increased use of social media. Twitter usage shot up 23% since last year, adding 20 million new daily users in the second quarter of 2020. Facebook said that usage of their apps in the hardest hit countries went up 70%. These platforms proved to be an extremely powerful mobilizing force in times of social protest by allowing people to connect, and certainly contributed to turning Black Lives Matter into a globally influential movement.
The global shift to online living involves significant downsides, however. There is the risk of losing visibility and becoming stuck in one’s own “bubble” as well as the vulnerability to hacking and to foreign or domestic manipulation. Some experts also question whether online activism actually has real potential to drive change. Internet based pseudo-action, they argue, can consume citizens’ energies and turn them away from real politics. The “virtual” can drive out the “real”.
There were also increasing concerns about social media as drivers of “post-truth” politics. Uncertainty during the pandemic proved to be a fertile ground for what the World Health Organisation labelled “infodemic”—the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories, divisive and hateful speech and attacks on information systems. Drawing on European Movement International surveys, Petros Fassoulas identifies four trends that underpin the infodemic phenomenon: first, spreading disinformation about the virus to undermine scientific advice; second, attacking information systems of international organisations, governments, and even medical systems; third, dividing and pitting societies and people against one another by blaming the spread of the virus on specific ethnic groups; and fourth, creating a sense of fear and hopelessness, focusing on negative messaging about the pandemic. All of this can lead to an erosion of trust within society, exacerbating the crisis of representative democracy.
Another danger is the spread of Black-and-White thinking and censoriousness at the expense of a nuanced discussion. While the phenomenon predates the crisis, the narrowing of social life due to the lockdowns emboldened people to more often judge and call out others for their opinions. Social media are incentivising this kind of contention, as polarizing situations increase user engagement. These dynamics can be observed even in countries where “cancel culture” has not been widely discussed as a phenomenon. If the price of expressing an opinion publically is high and can lead to widespread shaming on social media, possibly even involving consequences like losing a job, people will shy away from debate and engagement.
Powerful shocks like pandemics, wars, or financial crashes do not happen often, but they are a normal part of human history. As history teaches us, powerful crises often have lasting political and social consequences. While the Coronavirus has triggered far-reaching adjustments in all aspects of life, this essay was not about whether these changes will make our societies more or less fair or democratic. Instead, by focusing on Europe, it aimed at exploring whether the impact of the global pandemic will make people more willing to engage politically and, if so, the avenues through which this might happen.
The above analysis also showed that the forces unleashed by the global pandemic could have contradictory effects on political mobilization. For example, it could, on the one hand, generate a shared feeling of vulnerability and responsibility, thus increasing community cohesion in society overall. On the other hand, the consequences of the pandemic could foster feelings of fear among the population, leading to distrust of others and the possible breakdown of communities. Some consequences of the pandemic will produce different effects in the short- and long-term. Restrictions on citizens’ rights and the stifling effects of technocracy might prevent people from engaging in the short term, but conversely it could lead to a build-up of tension and eventually to an explosion of public anger. The overall effect of other factors, like digitalization, can be positive, but only if sufficient action is taken to mitigate the risks of its possible negative consequences.
Overall, however, the sheer magnitude of the pandemic has exposed existing fault lines in our societies. In particular, the pandemic has amplified the shocking levels of widespread inequality across the globe. Highlighting inequality has increased the political stakes, making mobilization among disaffected citizens more likely. Before the crisis, politics, in particular in developed market economies, consisted largely of maintaining status quo, or was perceived as such by many citizens. Large parts of the population paid little attention to politics, because they felt alienated, did not feel their participation would make a significant difference, or they were simply apathetic. Now, in the extraordinary situation of the current crisis, it has become clear to citizens that the cost of not participating in the political process in their countries is considerable. This realization is likely to result in more people engaging in traditional forms of political participation, such as joining parties, trade unions, and taking part in elections, but it also has the potential to enhance non-institutional engagement, such as increased activism at community levels and within informal networks, like volunteering. We can also expect more protests, leading even to open rebellion against the existing order in some countries.
The impact of the pandemic on individual societies will depend on how the interplay between the factors described in this essay is influenced by political circumstances in every country, as well as on the theories people hold about history, society, authority, on the balance of power between societal groups, as well as on the actions taken by political actors. It is the responsibility of political leaders in each country to channel the political dynamics unleashed by the Coronavirus and to address the gaping inequalities in their societies. The choices that citizens have to make collectively will determine whether societies pull together or apart, and whether the crisis of representative democracy will heal or deepen.
Milica Delevic, Director, Governance and Political Affairs, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development; the views expressed reflect the personal opinion of the author only.
 Minouche Shafik. Redesigning society after Covid-19. Financial Times at LINK
 Anna Gross, Bethan Staton and Delpine Straus: Pandemic crisis prompts revival in trade union membership: Fears of redundancy and increased anxiety drive surge in numbers, Financial Times LINK
 Francis Fukuyama. The Thing That Determines a Country’s Resistance to the Coronavirus. The Atlantic. March 30, 2020.
 Andy Haldane: Reweaving the social fabric after the crisis: the lesson is to better recognise all the paid and unpaid contributions citizens make. Financial Times at LINK
 Epidemics and Refuseniks: The Birth of State Responsibility at LINK
 Hans Kundnani. Technocracy and Populism After the Coronavirus. How the Coronavirus Tests European Democracy. Carnegie Europe, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at LINK
 The Future of Democracy in Europe: Technology and the Evolution of Representation. Research Paper, March 2020, Chatham House at LINK
 For more, see Andy Williamson. Virtual Members: Parliaments During the Pandemic at LINK
 Tim Bradshsaw. Users flock to Twitter during pandemic but ad revenues fall. Financial Times at LINK
 Frances Z. Brown, Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers. How Will the Coronavirus Reshape Democracy and Governance Globally? Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at LINK
 Petros Fassoulas. Democracy and the Coronavirus Infodemic – How the Coronavirus Tests European Democracy. Carnegie Europe, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at LINK
 Laura Spiney. Will coronavirus lead to fairer societies? Thomas Piketty explores the prospects. The Guardian at LINK
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).