How governments have addressed the pandemic has reflected different levels of social trust—which will have consequences for its aftermath.
Since the beginning of March, governments around the world have responded differently to the Covid-19 pandemic. Initial responses could not be based on well-founded, objective science and medical tests but rather on political decisions after consultations with experts from various disciplines.
Some prioritised the economy. Others concentrated on the ability of the health system to cope with patients flocking into intensive care and/or the high risk of deaths.
In the meantime, funding for research on a new vaccine, and the social and economic implications of the pandemic, has massively expanded. Yet, as the crisis unfolds by the day, combined with a high degree of uncertainty, nobody can yet securely affirm which has been the right reaction among the diverse national approaches.
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Indicatively, in Greece the government’s measures have been particularly stringent—a complete lockdown of schools, cafes, restaurants and shops, strictly monitored by the police and with the borders closed. Along similar lines, the Danish government took a rigorous stance—initially a public-sector lockdown, followed by cafes, restaurants and shops, also combined with closure of the borders. Denmark however monitored more moderately, relying on social collaboration. In Sweden, the measures were much looser and compliance was delegated to the individual.
These divergent responses were manifestations of different national relationships between the state and civil society. In turn, these reflected different levels of social trust and hence accepted degrees of individual and social responsibility.
In Greece, the government pursued oversight through police patrols, controlling individual movement with the use of technology and applying sanctions such as fines. In Denmark, on the other hand, the discourse emerging during the lockdown was of ‘we do this together’, which required high co-ordination but stimulated mutual responsibility and attributed a very active role to civil society. In Sweden, meanwhile, there was some confusion, characterised by conflicting views among experts and in the wider society as to the correctness of the approach adopted.
Drawing on the literature on ‘social capital’, we can anticipate the implications of these responses for state-society relations when the crisis is over and such measures are no longer necessary. Social capital is a combination of trust created among persons and reciprocity established through network relations. It constitutes a significant asset for individuals, societies and their governments, especially during crises such as the pandemic.
Since March 11th, the Danish government has exhibited strong co-ordination among the units related to the management of the Covid-19 crisis. Communication and interaction with society has also been co-ordinated, including the prime minister, the minister of health, the director of the State Serum Institute (which combats and prevents infectious diseases) and the leadership of the police. Being all present, they have conveyed clear messages, stimulated dialogue and engendered a community feeling (fælleskab)—encouraging collaboration with, and active involvement by, civil society.
This interaction ensured compliance, as intended, in the implementation of the government’s measures, notably the lockdown and social distancing. While allowing for co-ordinated responses in times of crises, however, high social trust—characteristic of the Nordic region—can be ‘misused’ and empower the centralisation of governments. Instead of a lockdown, Sweden provided guidelines and relied on individuals’ social responsibility.
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At the other corner of the continent, simultaneously with Denmark, the Greek government introduced a police-controlled lockdown, activating the governing machinery, using extensive information-technology resources, closely monitoring social distancing (such as by micromanaging social mobility), limiting outdoors access and enforcing compliance through economic penalties.
Communication has been systematic and regular, conducted by the leading medical figure responsible, Sotiris Tsiodras, and the deputy minister for civil protection and crisis management. Indeed, it has been particularly personalised: everybody feels ‘acquainted’ with Dr Tsiodras.
This approach demonstrates positive results, in terms of low mortality and relieving the healthcare system, and this has been celebrated extensively via ‘social media’. Yet while it also indicates a degree of co-ordination and societal involvement, the latter is passive, paternalistic and non-collaborative. Being adversarial, this type of management requires increased use of administrative resources and raises concerns about the protection of private data.
Consequently, ‘big government’ becomes bigger and if potentially effective less efficient, through extensive use of resources. Besides, by not actively putting civil society on the agenda, this approach impedes recognition of ‘the value of reciprocity’, which, even amid social distancing, can ensure results based on social trust. The society remains immature and uncritical, expecting the government to take extensive responsibility for society’s needs, even by force.
Society praises the government for taking control, when things work. But the moment things go wrong, it considers it legitimate to criticise government decisions, since it has been absent from their creation or not included actively in their implementation—often leading to conspiracy theories. And legitimising police control violates basic principles of democracy and protection of privacy, encouraging authoritarian regimes in the future.
Social capital and trust do not emerge overnight. They are embedded ‘in social organisation anchored in historical and cultural experiences’ and require the necessary political institutional setting and rules. Their development is time-contingent and thus path-dependent, requiring resources as well as conscious and systematic efforts by various agents of change. Where these exist, they enable a society not only to get through a crisis but also to develop learning processes for the day after.
Conversely, societies which lack social trust and capital and are under a closely monitored, top-down, crisis-management approach most probably will miss an opportunity to establish and maintain trusting relationships and invest in social networks. The society will remain confused, lost in a process of searching for ‘guidance’ by the state.
Hopefully, the pandemic provides a new window of opportunity to establish the deeply-rooted, co-operative values and norms which can lead to social trust. This is a necessary form of capital—whose absence showed during the eurozone crisis—especially because the day after the pandemic will be even more challenging.