We studied the timing of the decisions of 31 European governments to close down schools, impose national lockdowns and declare states of emergency in response to the coronavirus. What we found is quite surprising: Countries with greater government capacity, more freedoms and higher social trust were generally slower to adopt restrictive measures. The speed of the government responses has been of paramount importance for containing the spread and limiting the death toll, so these insights may be helpful for future coronavirus decision-making.
Why does higher capacity lead to slower government response?
We used the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, which track government effectiveness, rule of law and regulatory quality, as well as other measures, to score government capacity. We discovered countries with higher government capacity had a greater number of confirmed covid-19 cases when they decided to close schools and impose lockdowns, as shown in the figure below. One plausible explanation is that countries with lower general government capacity also tend to have fewer hospital beds, intensive care units and medical equipment per capita. Anticipating their health care sectors would be quickly overwhelmed, countries like Greece and Poland acted swiftly and decisively to impose social distancing.
But the negative association between government effectiveness and the speed of the policy response remains when taking health care capacity into account. Why were the more effective European governments slower to launch their coronavirus responses?
It could be that the fast-moving countries of Eastern Europe, which tend to have lower scores on government capacity, were fortunate in their relative isolation from the rapid coronavirus spread in Italy and other parts of Western Europe. However, some of these countries, such as Croatia and Estonia, had their first covid-19 cases as early as the end of February. Others, such as Romania and Bulgaria, began to see tens of thousands of their citizens return from Italy, Spain, The Netherlands and other pandemic hotspots. So Eastern Europe faced considerable risks as well but was quick to impose restrictive measures, despite — or perhaps because of — relatively low government capacity.
Eastern European governments are also more likely to have separate ministries of health and health ministers with background as medical professionals — and these two factors may have prompted faster reactions to the pandemic. A legacy of authoritarian rule might have helped as well, with governments being more willing to act heavy-handedly and restrict personal freedoms in fighting the coronavirus.
Can trust in government and other people compensate for lack of government policy?
In fact, we found rather strong negative associations between the average levels of social freedoms (as measured by Freedom House), interpersonal trust (as measured by the World Values Survey) and trust in governments (as measured by Eurobarometer), on the one hand, and the speed of imposing lockdowns and other restrictions, on the other. Countries with higher interpersonal trust have been more likely to rely on self-regulation (as in Sweden), have adopted less comprehensive lockdowns (as in The Netherlands) and were slower to restrict movement (as in the United Kingdom). So far, it does not seem that self-regulation and voluntary social distancing have been very successful in containing the pandemic. But enforcing strict lockdowns in low-trust societies can be difficult — and can further erode trust in government.
What about party politics?
Party politics, however, didn’t seem to factor into the speed of the policy response to the pandemic. We expected that governments led by parties with more economically right-wing positions and ideology would be slower to shut down public life — and keep the economy open for business. But we find no evidence that was the case in Europe. Instead, there’s some evidence that parties with more authoritarian and nationalist positions — such as the Croatian Democratic Union, Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland — moved somewhat faster to impose lockdowns.
Overall, there has been very little infighting between parties in government and opposition about the proper policy response to the pandemic, with a few notable exceptions such as the United Kingdom and, more recently, Serbia.
The European public has largely united around the restrictive measures imposed by most governments. Europe has not seen polarized and highly partisan debates about how to manage the pandemic like in the U.S. Some Europeans are beginning to protest the lockdowns, but so far protests in Europe have been few and relatively small, compared to the United States.
But differences in public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic might not be that great — according to recent polls, most Americans support the restrictions, even if Democrats do so more than Republicans. What differs is the presence of a vocal and highly visible minority protesting lockdowns in a growing number of U.S. states.
What forces will shape the way ahead?
Our study focused on the speed of the policy responses to the first stage of the pandemic in Europe. But these results suggest some broader lessons. First, when speed is critical, more coordination between agencies, experts and other features of good government can actually hurt decision-making. Second, having people with relevant medical background at the highest decision-making levels — as health ministers or, as in the case of Ireland, a prime minister — may have helped some countries manage their covid-19 outbreaks. Third, government choices in a pandemic crisis can be nonpartisan, and don’t have to polarize society.
Of course, if the coronavirus comes back with full force after countries open up, nobody knows how societies will respond to a new round of restrictions and the inevitable conflicts this will bring. When the coronavirus started to rage through Europe, few could contest the restrictive measures governments took to safeguard public health. As the initial fears of the disease itself begin to subside, politics are likely to return.
Brendan Carroll is assistant professor at the Institute of Public Administration at Leiden University, The Netherlands.
Kutsal Yesilkagit is professor of International Governance at Leiden University, The Netherlands.