COVID-19 pandemic: we’re in the same storm, but not in the same boat

Professor Prainsack, I would like to talk to you today about the COVID pandemic from the perspective of the annual theme of the CENTRAL Network, which is “what unites and divides us“. Can you think of particular aspects of the pandemic that are having unifying or dividing effects on our society?

It’s a very good question and (as often in life) there are both. One of the unifying effects is that for the first time in most people’s lifetimes, their lives were disrupted by a particular event at the same time as everyone else’s. Whereas most of us go through life events such as falling in love, starting a family or losing a loved one, this is normally not synchronic. The pandemic disrupted all of our lives at the same time. But I think that’s pretty much the only way in which the pandemic has affected all of us equally. Because the risks and the effects and the burdens of the pandemic were distributed unevenly. It starts with the fact that some people are at greater risk of being infected. For example, those who had to go to work when others stayed at home; those who didn’t have personal protective equipment; or those who had less opportunity to isolate from others – because they live in smaller spaces, for example. Some people were also hit with the economic costs of the pandemic much more forcefully than others, with job and income losses, which were distributed very unequally. So in that sense, it has become almost a truism to say that we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.


Are those differences reflected in the way people have reacted to the management of the pandemic in Austria?

What we have found in our studies is that people who feel left behind or unseen trust the government less. So, they have less trust in anything coming from the government, including the pandemic measures. But there can be many reasons why people feel that way. Sometimes it is because they are actually not receiving the support that they should, and sometimes their mistrust is motivated by particular ideologies. Some people feel left behind because they think that the government is a part of a conspiracy.


Is it an oversimplification to say that the groups who are left behind respond skeptically to the management of the pandemic?

Yes, it is an oversimplification. Being left behind and feeling left behind are not the same thing. Many people in vulnerable or marginalised groups really have been left behind, but they don’t oppose the measures. The groups opposing the measures are very heterogeneous and are often motivated by political ideologies, or by the information that they receive – much of which isn't reliable – or by other factors. Another reason can be that people sometimes feel that political elites are serving economic interests more than they’re serving the people. And I think that they're not entirely wrong, but unfortunately, many people move from this diagnosis to some conspiracy “theory”. So even if their diagnosis is sometimes partly right, the conclusions that are being drawn from it are deeply problematic.


Is it also a matter of communication?

Yes, of course, communication is always important, and I think we know that from all our experiences in life. We know that when somebody gives us bad news it matters a lot if they say, “it is what it is, I’m just going to break it to you”, or whether this person gives an authentic explanation about their reasons. We all know that communication matters. However, I think it is much more significant to think about reasons other than communication that make people trust their government or not. For example, some people argue that when you just communicate right, then people will trust the government, but that’s only part of the story. In countries where people have high trust in government, this is the case not only because of good and transparent communication, but also because these are countries with extensive systems of social and economic support. People feel that overall, when they need support, they get it. The system is not perfect, but it is good enough for people to feel safe. This plays an important role in generating trust. These structural factors are essential.


Why is it then that there appears to be pretty strong opposition towards the measures in Austria, whilst at the same time it is considered to be a relatively generous state? What is Denmark doing better than Austria so that people feel safer?

Well, the silent majority in Austria has supported the pandemic measures most of the time. But there is a loud minority that doesn’t. Why this is the case is difficult to answer – besides pointing at the known causes, such as the spread of misinformation, and the fact that one party in parliament has openly advocated against pandemic measures. If I had to give a short answer, I would say it is because people felt that measures to fight the pandemic were not consistent and transparent enough, and they were not considered fair. Fairness is a hugely important point for people. People will regularly support measures that they personally dislike if they consider them fair.


And how could this "loud minority" which resists the measures be addressed?

The problem is that it is not one homogenous group. It is a minority, but it is very diverse – and some people cannot be convinced, because they just want to oppose the measures. Other people feel left alone because they have open questions that were not answered for them, especially as regards the vaccination. Making the vaccination mandatory hasn’t helped. Numerous people were hesitant and then they thought, “OK, if it is compulsory, it means that there is something wrong with the vaccination, so I’m not going to go.”

Making the vaccination mandatory as such was a big, big mistake. If you want as many people as possible to get vaccinated, you should not impose a mandate. Compulsory rules work in some contexts, but not in others – particularly when people’s bodies are concerned. Similarly, if you want people to live healthily, then you’re not going to issue a mandate for them to eat apples or exercise. You create the circumstances that make it easier for people to do it, and you work with a set of carrots and sticks. Compulsory rules are not always the right policy response.


And what about solidarity in society, which seemed to be omnipresent at the beginning of the pandemic and faded with time. Is it still there?

Yes, we do see it. People are clearly tired of the pandemic, so polarization has increased. But they continue to help each other. We see this now in the context of refugees from Ukraine, too. Many people are willing to help refugees and to help other people. In addition, when we look at the results on solidarity in the European Social Survey in 2018, for example, we see that solidarity has not decreased during the pandemic. It is just no longer celebrated. At first, it was this kind of festival of solidarity, which I think also got on some people’s nerves. And now it is still there, but it is much quieter. At the same time, we see more polarization, which doesn’t mean that people show less solidarity – but they may focus their support on people who share their own beliefs. This in-group solidarity, or “exclusive” solidarity, as we call it, is not always a good thing.

I think solidarity can always grow when people think beyond differences. Differences are always there, obviously, and solidarity recognizes that people are all different, but beyond those differences, there are things we all have in common, and we should act upon what we have in common.


Is this something that you would advise in your policy papers for the government: to look beyond differences and look for things that unite us?

Yes! It sounds very abstract, but it is not. Our health care system, for example, is built on this premise of solidarity. Because we do not, like in other regions of the world, say: you have a health problem, so you’re more expensive, so you pay more, and I’m healthy, so why would I pay for you? We don’t say that. Neither do we say: you live far away, and I live in the center of Vienna and can walk to work, so why should I pay for your public transportation through my taxes? We have numerous systems and countless policies that rely on solidarity, where people contribute as they can and receive support as they need.


In your book, you mention a piece of graffiti which says that there will be no return to normal because the “normal” was the problem in the first place. You also write about the need to change the way in which people lived at the beginning of the pandemic, when people didn't want to do jobs that they didn’t like anymore or to live in flats that they didn’t like, and so on. There was a real hope that we would change everything. Over time, this has faded, and we slowly returned to the old routines. Do you think this is a missed opportunity?

Many people see that there is something wrong with the way we live and work and do our business. It is not a coincidence that all these wars, atrocities, pandemics, and floods are happening nowadays. If the experience of the pandemic is not going to help us to ask ourselves what’s crucial and how we want to live, then this is a missed opportunity.


Is there something that individuals can do about this, or should it be handled on a policy level?

I think we should not start with what an individual can do. Of course, everyone needs to own the problem and own the solution – but not individually, because it would be far too much for any individual to carry. We need collective, structural responses. We need to elect leaders who have a vision. We need to do things that are a responsible way of living. And policymakers need to look at some ideas that people already have to make the world better, in the broadest sense of the term. There are people who have good ideas about how to organize care, how to save energy, and how to live and work in ways that don’t destroy people and the planet. Many people already have some good ideas and some solutions, but politicians don’t even know it, because they don’t know where to look. So we need to link these two levels more. Individuals cannot fix this alone. We have to stop indivdualizing the responsibility for the crises we are facing.


So how can we directly respond to the current situation?

I think all of us are relieved when infection rates are lowering and when our lives no longer need to be ruled by pandemic measures. But the problem with not talking about the pandemic anymore is that some hard-hit people are left alone, such as vulnerable people, children and young people, and people who need social, psychological or financial support. So if we stop talking about the pandemic, which is psychologically very understandable, we also stop thinking about those members of our society. I think another risk is that if we now stop thinking and debating about the pandemic, then we will just move on. We’re going to increase defense spending given current developments, but it might come at the cost of spending on social services, education and other things that we know are actually improving the lives of everyone. Strengthening public infrastructures such as health and social care, abolishing poverty, and decreasing inequalities are the best ways to protect ourselves from the impact of the next crisis.


Professor Barbara Prainsack is a political scientist with expertise in the regulatory, social and ethical dimensions of bioscience, biomedicine and forensics. She is based in the Department of Political Science, University of Vienna. She is currently a member of the National Bioethics Council advising the Federal Government in Vienna, Austria, and a member of the European Group on Ethics and New Technologies, advising the European Commission.


CENTRAL Annual Theme – What Unites and divides us?

Central Annual Theme is a cross-cutting theme of wider political or societal relevance, which is determined by the Network’s Governance Board to set agenda for vivid discussions across CENTRAL institutions.