Event Review: The Corona Pandemic & Democratic Practices: An Interdisciplinary Workshop
Author: Margarethe Finger
To what extent does the Corona pandemic affect the institutions and norms of liberal democracies? Does it change people’s confidence in democratic procedures? Has it resulted in democratic backsliding? The online workshop “Practicing Democracy during a Health Crisis: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Austria, Germany, and the UK”, held on 27 November 2020, aimed to answer these and many other questions. It was hosted by the German Politics Specialist Group of the UK Political Studies Association (PSA) in collaboration with the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies (HAIT) at the TU Dresden. Social scientists with different disciplinary backgrounds introduced the audience to ongoing collaborative research projects that investigate the impact of pandemics on democratic practices. Josefin Graef, Co-Convener of the German Politics Specialist Group, moderated the event.
“From Virus to Viral Conspiracy Theories”
The first project was introduced by Isabelle-Christine Panreck, a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the Hannah Arendt Institute at the Technical University of Dresden specialising in the field of comparative political science and political theory. She coordinates the political science strand of the research project “From Virus to Viral Conspiracy Theories in the German-Czech-Polish Border Region” at the HAIT. In her talk, Isabelle explained why fear and a loss of social trust can be a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and anti-scientific sentiments. The HAIT-project conducts a diachronic and interdisciplinary comparison of the ‘Spanish flu’ in the early 20th century and the current COVID-19 pandemic in the ‘Land’ Saxony in Germany as well as its neighbouring countries Czech Republic and Poland. Precisely because their historical and political contexts are so different, comparing these cases promises new insights into how conspiracy theories spread and how othering processes emerge in times of crisis. The project focuses in particular on public protest, the effects of public health regulations on political mobilization, and the impact of the perceived “health crisis” on conspiratorial thinking. The study draws on a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods and a range of empirical material, including interviews with and public speeches of protest organizers. Besides dissemination in academic journals and workshops, the findings will also be made available to the public. Additional information about the project can be found here.
Activists and Artists respond to Covid-19
Piergiuseppe Parisi presented the second research initiative. Parisi is a research associate at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York and an associate lecturer at York Law School who specialises in international criminal law and human rights law. His talk “Arctivism against Repression: Resilience, Resistance and Imagination during the Covid-19 Crisis” introduced the workshop participants to an interdisciplinary project hosted by the Centre for Applied Human Rights. For the instigators, art is a strong instrument to open up democratic spaces by fostering social and political change and improving social justice. During the pandemic, countries that offer limited space for civil society and non-governmental actors in particular face additional oppression from authoritarian powers. Against this background, the project aims to monitor civil society’s role during the pandemic, and increase the visibility of marginalized groups in this context. Of the more than 500 initiatives that answered the call for applications, 26 projects from 21 different countries were selected that promote socio-economic equality, civic freedom, and new visions of a post-pandemic future through a variety of artistic forms, ranging from theatre to painting and political drag performances. Despite the project’s global reach, Parisi pointed to the gaps in its geographical coverage, citing language barriers and limited technical capacities as potential explanations. He ended his presentation by reflecting on the limits of art in opening democratic spaces and options for artistic and activist action in highly challenging, repressive contexts. For further information, please see: “Arctivism” project
Austrian responses to Covid-19
The third workshop speaker was Lukas Schlögl, a Post-Doc at the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna who specialises in the field of quantitative social science and comparative policy analysis. Lukas presented initial findings of the “Austrian Corona Panel Project” (ACPP), an interdisciplinary and collaborative panel survey led by the Department of Economic Sociology, the Department of Government), the Department of Communication, and the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna. The ACPP monitors the socio-political, psychological, and economic effects of the pandemic on the Austrian population, ranging from quality of sleep, support for vaccination, and trust in the media to satisfaction with democracy. Interestingly, the results show that since the end of March 2020, the perception of Covid-19 as a serious health hazard has decreased. At the same time, survey participants perceived a substantially lower level of threat when asked about their own health compared to their threat perceptions in relation to the Austrian population as a whole. In addition, social cohesion, the feeling of togetherness, and satisfaction with democracy has been declining during the last months of 2020. Still, participants support the wearing of facemasks.
The study’s findings are made publically available and serve as a basis for advising policymakers on how to respond to the pandemic.
You can find further information here: “Austrian Corona Panel Project”
The need for interdisciplinary research
After the talks, as a starting point for further discussion, Josefin Graef identified four dimensions of researching the effects of the pandemic on democratic practices that connect the three projects:
1) The benchmark for assessing the pandemic’s effects on democratic legitimacy and levels of trust across time (e.g. 1918 vs. 2020, but also temporal dynamics in 2020), space (e.g., online vs. national parliaments), and place (e.g., in different countries).
2) The criteria for evaluating the quality of democratic discourse and the uses and effects of narratives, myths, and memories.
3) The (in)visibility of marginalized groups – real or imagined – during a health crisis, including refugees and migrant workers, but also those who present themselves as the “resistance” in democratic countries, e.g. far-right protestors.
4) The importance of new digital tools and media channels for responding to the pandemic (e.g. organising civil society activism vs. spreading conspiracy theories online) and for studying these responses (e.g. monitoring change in remote places or conducting a major panel study online)
The subsequent Q&A session picked up on different aspects of these dimensions. It was, for instance, emphasised that conspiracy theories are not limited to digital spaces. As the example of the ‘Spanish flu’ would illustrate, conspiracy theories have their roots in the analogue world. Conspiracy theories provide simple answers that appear attractive to many but, inevitably, undermine liberal-democratic values and social cohesion. The discussion also turned to the dynamics of national political and media discourses. The strong narrative to protect “vulnerable” groups, in particular the elderly, was widely endorsed by executive authorities in Europe to raise support for strict lock-down measures as a tool of “caring politics”, but criticised by others – not least members of these groups themselves – for merely creating scapegoats.
All discussants shared the view that the current pandemic is more than a medical challenge, adding further to people’s existing feelings of insecurity in an increasingly complex world. Interdisciplinary research and exchange is key to gaining comprehensive insights into the effects of health crises on democratic values and practices globally and develop equally comprehensive responses.