Rise in political dissent threatens global democracies

The COVID pandemic has created a tidal wave of political dissent which is likely to impact governments’ efforts to tackle current and future crises.

Research from Aarhus University found a significant societal impact of the pandemic beyond the domain of health and raising concerns about the ability of democratic societies to cope with future challenges such as the climate crisis

“Many of us found it hard to keep up with official restrictions as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on,” said the study. “We experienced  pandemic fatigue. And this fatigue led to wide-spread political discontent in Western democracies,” the study stated.

“Prior research has found that small groups of people have been radicalised and that pandemic fatigue has proven a health challenge, but our new study shows that we are facing challenges far beyond the domain of health or the radicalisation of some groups,” said Michael Bang Petersen, (pic) professor of political science at Aarhus University and one of the researchers behind the study.

For instance, broad segments of the public respond that they support protests against the government’s policies, that they are concerned about their own democratic rights or that they believe the government is hiding important information from the public about the coronavirus.

Such political discontent is closely linked with the feeling of pandemic fatigue, according to the study.

“Based on our research method, we can be quite confident that there is not just a correlation between pandemic fatigue and political discontent. Rather, fatigue is a direct cause of political discontent,” added Frederik Jørgensen, assistant professor of political science at Aarhus University and the lead author of the study.

During the pandemic, both researchers and authorities discussed the concept of pandemic fatigue and whether it exists in populations. For one thing, the British government was met with criticism for delaying their lockdown during the first wave of the pandemic based on the exact argument that restrictions could generate fatigue.

“Our results are important in this debate because they demonstrate that citizens do experience fatigue during this type of crisis, in which the government imposes strict but often necessary measures on its citizens. And it turns out that loneliness during the pandemic in particular served to induce fatigue,” added Jørgensen.

The researchers analysed data in Denmark, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Hungary, Sweden and the United States. The surveys were fielded on a regular basis in 2020 and 2021, while the epidemic curves and restrictions in each country increased and decreased at different paces, some countries more burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic than others. But researchers added there is a clear pattern across national borders: Fatigue increases as time goes by, when the stringency of restrictions goes up and when death numbers go down.

According to the researchers, the latter is significant in terms of adopting suitable policies. When death counts are high, citizens report lower levels of fatigue.

“Citizens are able to keep up with restrictions when these are necessary. This means there may be a sound basis for tightening and loosening restrictions as needed, instead of keeping them at a constant level as Germany and other countries did. By tightening and loosening restrictions, the authorities appear to be able to minimise pandemic fatigue and prevent it from sticking – and thus prevent political discontent from increasing even further,” said professor Michael Bang Petersen, who is head of the research project on the pandemic that this study forms part of.

Bang Petersen added that several Western democracies were strained by polarisation and destabilisation even before the COVID-19 pandemic. He also noted that the world is facing a series of other crises which could add fuel to the fire. For instance the climate crisis and the current energy crisis.

“Citizens may feel fatigued and direct their frustrations towards the authorities in these crises as well. Fatigue during a crisis is something that the authorities should take very seriously and take active steps to avoid. One such step could be open communication that explains why action is necessary,” explained Bang Petersen.