Policymaking in the dark: political pitfalls and opportunities of the pandemic

In its latest collaboration, the Mercator European Dialogue (MED) offered its members an opportunity to be part of the OECD Observatory for Public Sector Innovation’s (OPSI) global dialogue on “Government after Shock”, aiming to make sense of the current crisis and formulating strategies of handling future shocks better.

In the latest MED120 dialogue, taking place on 17 November 2020, 11 members of the MED explored the changing relationship between policymakers and constituents during this pandemic. The conversation took a fascinating turn early on when the concept of pandemic fatigue was discussed. Pandemic fatigue describes the growing demotivation of citizens to follow recommended protective behaviors aimed to curb the spread of Covid-19. One participating expert pointed out that this idea, while sounding like it might be rooted in sound behavioral science, is a phantom that appeared in government and World Health Organization briefings during the first wave of the pandemic but in fact does not have an evident scientific foundation. Although the usefulness of the term ‘pandemic fatigue’ in describing public behavior is thus disputed, some participants pointed out that they had nonetheless observed a decline in citizens’ cooperativeness over time. The reasons for this are varied, but in many cases can be accounted by a loss of trust in the government, fueled by wide-spread false information or conspiracy theories on the internet.

There was agreement though, that the concept of pandemic fatigue has had a profound impact on consequential policy decisions taken by governments to curb the spread of Covid-19: Assuming that citizens might experience pandemic fatigue, it can seem rational to wait before implementing any social distancing measures. After all, citizens may at some point tire of abiding by the policies due to their fatigue. Further, the concept implies that people could recover from this fatigue before a possible next lockdown. Finally, the notion that non-compliance with social distancing measures is caused by fatigue can incentivize policymakers to try and alleviate fatigue rather than the many underlying causes of why citizens may not (be able to) comply with policies.

As another expert pointed out, we now know that there is a plethora of reasons for people to object to certain policies, from direct concerns of losing their livelihoods to a general skepticism of the political system.  All these people will likely not take a more compliant stance because they are afforded a break from social distancing every now and again to alleviate their fatigue. Their problems will have to be addressed by adequate policies if the democratic institutions want to keep their legitimacy. The group of participants added that the confusion about the competent authorities or levels of governance, excessive expectations created by ambitious political promises and the exclusion of parliament from many decisions were complicating things further for them.

There is nonetheless an upside to this, too. Rather than merely focusing on alleviating a punctual problem, there is now an opportunity for policymakers to position themselves on key political questions such as labor rights, state interventionism, public vs. private healthcare, state bailouts, industrial policy and many more, as people seem willing to question routines and challenge the status quo. As one of the participating experts put it, “never waste a good crisis”. The participants and experts also underlined that this should be accompanied by clear scenario communication: How could this crisis turn out if certain steps were taken?

In the end, this crisis, like many before it, can end up being an important turning point. It is up to policymakers to gain the support of their constituents with open and responsive communication, and to position themselves clearly to make sure that their ideas for change will be carried out of the crisis by public support.