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Government Capacity, Societal Trust or Party Preferences? What Accounts for the Variety of National Policy Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Europe?

Why have some European countries responded faster to the coronavirus outbreak than others? While in some countries the lockdown had already been declared when relatively few cases were known, others did not take action until thousands of people were already infected and hundreds were already dead. The differences are largely due to the role of the government, according to Dimiter Toshkov, Kutsal Yesilkagit and Brendan Carroll (all from the Institute of Public Administration). A number of interesting insights emerge from their as yet exploratory research.

Dimiter Toshkov, Kutsal Yesilkagit, Brendan Carroll
29 April 2020
OSF Preprints

Quality of the administration

The first insight concerns the influence of the quality of the government apparatus. "You would expect countries with highly developed public administrations to respond more quickly to the outbreak of a dangerous virus," said Dimiter Toshkov. However, the results of the regression analysis show the opposite picture. It was not countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and France, but countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic that introduced policy measures fairly quickly. At the time these countries took their measures, only a maximum of 20 to 30 infections were known to the authorities of those countries. "At first we thought this was due to the poorer care capacities in those countries," says Brendan Carroll, "because if you're late, you're almost certainly going to have a catastrophe." However, even after checking for hospital bed and intensive care unit numbers per country, no significant change in this result occurred.

High-trust societies

Another unexpected finding was that governments in countries with a more trusting society also took measures later than countries with a low-trust society. Yesilkagit: "It seems that in countries where citizens have a high level of trust in each other and in government, governments have been reluctant to take restrictive measures." A possible explanation is that it is more difficult for politicians in a high-trust society to impose restrictive measures on citizens than politicians in a less trusting society. In the more low-trust countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the acceptance by citizens of more stringent measures may be greater than in Western Europe. However, this also implies that citizens in more liberal high-trust societies have been exposed to the virus longer than citizens in less liberal countries.

The role of experts

It was also unexpected that countries where experts have closer access to policy processes came up with measures much later than countries where policy processes are less open to experts. Carroll therefore also thinks that in "countries where experts have an important input into policy it took longer to make decisions - justifying the effectiveness of proposed measures takes time." The researchers think that the discussion about the closure and reopening of primary schools in the Netherlands is a good example. Both the March 15 decision to close schools and the April 21 decision to reopen them took time, as experts and teachers’ organizations had to take the time to agree on the effects of the measures. Moreover, when experts are seen to be discussing with each other, the opposition can use this for further debates, which will take more time for the decision-making process.

Practical implications but above all difficult questions

Finally, Toshkov emphasizes that some caution is needed when drawing conclusions. After all, these are provisionally correlational and not causal relationships. The research has at least one practical implication. Indeed, it has become apparent that when the health minister is medically trained, the government takes measures more quickly against the further spread of the virus. It has also been shown that when public health has its own ministry, governments came up with measures faster than when the portfolio is shared, such as in the VWS (where health is shared with welfare and sport) in the Netherlands. The findings about the role of knowledge, freedom and effective intervention are more sensitive. "The fact that experts may have delayed decision-making and that early and severe intervention can severely curtail the pandemic are difficult insights for liberal democratic countries," says Toshkov.

The analysis and findings have been released in pre-print form and are available for download at https://osf.io/7chpu/. The investigation itself will continue in the near future. The researchers will want to further substantiate the said relationships and are interested in, among other things, the extent to which the conditions that affected the measures aimed at containing the outbreak will also affect the various exit strategies used. In addition to providing insights into how governments have attempted to manage the pandemic, the research will also provide insights into the extent to which political, managerial and institutional factors influence the nature and scale of complex social problems.

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