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United but divided: Policy responses and people’s perceptions in the EU during the COVID-19 outbreak

Based on the data collected among representative samples of the population in seven European countries, we draw lessons from the containment stage and identify several insights that can facilitate the design of lockdown exit strategies and future containment policies so that a high level of compliance can be expected. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No 721402.

Health

The outbreak of COVID-19 triggered a wide range of responses from governments in the European Union. Given that the disease was new and effective medical countermeasures did not exist in early 2020, governments had to adopt non-medical measures aiming at the containment and mitigation of COVID-19. As the pandemic began to abate, governments started designing the lockdown exit strategies and restarting their economies. However, the risk that the new wave of the epidemic may happen did not disappear, especially given that the vaccine development takes a long time, and herd immunity was not achieved. In this light, the issue of lifting lockdowns has become a new subject of public debate across and within European countries raising discussions about the appropriateness of timing, risks, and potential consequences of ending the confinement. We provide a timely description of the current situation and draw lessons from the containment stage to inform the design and implementation of the lockdown exit policies. First, we observed a north-south divide in people’s perceptions, worries and trust across the European countries. This finding suggests that further containment measures and lockdown exit strategies need to be balanced against the factors that worry people in each specific country. One noteworthy example is the level of importance that people in European countries attribute to the concepts of individual freedom and privacy. Using mobile data for tracking COVID-19 cases and their contacts may be a controversial decision to take even though it is believed by many experts to be a useful tool to manage the COVID-19 outbreak. The effectiveness of this policy critically depends on a sufficient level of adoption of the technology by the population. Our data suggest that this may not be achieved easily in some European countries. Another critical issue is the balance between saving lives and saving livelihoods. According to the survey, people in southern European countries are substantially more concerned about the economic aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak than people in northern European countries. Second, we found considerable heterogeneities in people’s approval of policies within individual countries. This tendency was particularly noticeable in France and Italy. Furthermore, our results showed that the burden of stress tended to be unequally distributed across and within countries. Even in case of households that were not directly hit by COVID-19, the pandemic may have acted as a stressor causing health and economic anxieties. Such worries may be detrimental to individual mental health and wellbeing, and they may become further exacerbated by the imposition of self-isolation policies. Third, during a pandemic, public trust in the government and the information it provides is of paramount importance. To expect high compliance over extended periods of time, policymakers need to adopt effective strategies and means of communication whereby securing a sufficient level of trust and confidence from the society. As our results suggest, some countries were more successful in this respect than others. Society needs to be well-informed about the dilemmas faced by policymakers, and for this, the communication between the government and the citizens must be clear and transparent. The data showed that 94 % of respondents closely followed the news on the situation with COVID-19 mainly using television to keep themselves updated. Thus, television emerged as the best channel to reach the population at large, suggesting that presenting reliable information through this means is an effective strategy to follow. Overall, information provision, public education and effective communication strategies should be among the key guidelines for policymakers when implementing exit strategies and designing future containment measures so that these policies have public support and high compliance.

Keywords

health, COVID-19, EU