New research in an HKS faculty working paper, conducted by a multinational team including Harvard Kennedy School Professor Marcella Alsan, examines whether the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic threatened democracies and made people living in democratic countries more likely to forgo civil liberties for public health concerns.  The researchers’ results suggest that “the start of the COVID-19 crisis was a particularly vulnerable time for democracies.” 

The research presented stringent COVID-19 policies adopted by China and South Korea to survey respondents in five Western liberal democracies to understand how willing respondents would be to adopt these measures. China and South Korea adopted some of the most severe COVID-19 containment policies, such as forced state quarantines and house-to-house temperature checks. “We were specifically interested in the respondents’ views of the trade-off between civil liberties and public health conditions,” the researchers write. 

The team—Alsan, and coauthors Luca Braghieri and Sarah Eichmeyer from Bocconi University, Joyce Kim from the University of Michigan, and Stefanie Stantcheva and David Yang from Harvard University—conducted the randomized surveys between March 30 and April 18, 2020, across five countries: France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. 

Demonstration against the "green pass" for workers in the public and private sectors in Messina Italy.

Participants were given three sets of questions to measure generic rights and freedoms, privacy, procedural fairness, free press, and right to movement. The first set involved agree/disagree statements such as “I am willing to relax privacy protections and let the government access my personal data during a crisis like the current one, in order to allow the government to make timely and accurate decisions.”  

The second used a “lives saved” approach, asking how many lives would need to be saved for the participant to support a given policy. The third set asked participants how they felt about their government, leaders, and their overall support for democratic political systems. 

“On average, the concerns that information collected by the government to fight COVID-19 will be misused later was raised,” researchers said.  “Their worries that forgone rights will not be recovered after the crisis also increased.” 

Marcella Alsan.

“We were specifically interested in the respondents’ views of the trade-off between civil liberties and public health conditions.”

Marcella Alsan & researchers

"Our separate, complementary longitudinal study demonstrated that respondents who lived in areas heavily affected by the pandemic were indeed more willing to sacrifice democratic procedures in the Spring of 2020,” the researchers noted, “though this willingness abated over time." However, “the willingness to curtail democratic rights and institutions is unaffected by the treatment.” 

“We find that subjects randomly exposed to information regarding civil liberties infringements undertaken by China and South Korea to contain COVID-19 became less willing to sacrifice rights and more worried about their long-term-erosion,” the researchers concluded. “But there was no effect of our treatment on support for democratic procedures.” 

Banner image: Government workers in PPE walk by walls enclosing buildings under the COVID-19 lockdown in Guangzhou in south China's Guangdong province. Photo by FeatureChina/AP; Inline image: A demonstration in Messina, Italy, against the obligation of the "green pass" for workers in the public and private sectors. Photo by Gabriele Maricchiolo/NurPhoto/AP; Faculty portrait by Casey Rodgers

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