By Michael Bang Petersen
Dr. Petersen is a professor of political science at Aarhus University. He advises the Danish government on Covid policy and runs a study of Covid behaviors and attitudes in Denmark, six other European countries and the United States.
For countries with high vaccination rates, 2022 may be the last year when strong measures are required against Covid-19. The end of the pandemic, however, will not come easily.
One might imagine that the end of the emergency would be joyfully welcomed. But conflicts over whether schools should remain open and the value of mask mandates reveal that just because the prognosis for Covid-19 has improved does not mean that public officials are absolved from the need to make hard choices about policy. A waning pandemic does not mean the end of leadership on Covid, but may instead mean it’s more necessary than ever.
The pandemic situation is now much more ambiguous and disjointed than it was at the beginning. In Denmark, for example, where around 81 percent of our population is vaccinated, high case numbers did not lead to high rates of severe disease during the Omicron wave. Because of this, leaders are rolling back all restrictions for the second time.
This was not necessarily an obvious decision. One could easily ask: Why are we letting down our guard when infections in Denmark had reached their highest point in the entire pandemic?
As a researcher and an adviser to the Danish government on the pandemic, I have repeatedly stressed that we need to make complex trade-offs between deaths, the economy, public well-being and constitutional rights. There is not a single right answer for how to proceed. Within the set of legitimate strategies, the choice of strategy is often less important than whether or not people follow and support it.
In Denmark, a clear majority of Danes support rolling back restrictions. My team’s research, which follows Covid-19 behaviors and attitudes in Denmark, six other European countries and the United States, suggests that the proportion of Danes who feel Covid-19 is a societal threat is dropping sharply. Throughout the pandemic, our surveys showed that the primary concern among Danish people was not their personal health, but whether our hospitals were overwhelmed. Now that the risk most Danish people care about is gone, the country can smoothly transition out of crisis mode. (If restrictions need to come back because of a more dangerous variant, there would most likely be support for them.)
But this won’t necessarily be the case everywhere, especially in countries where there’s less trust in authorities and more discordance over what the goals of Covid-19 restrictions are.
Our research has shown that public trust has taken a hit in many countries, including Denmark. As fatigue, personal costs and miscommunications have accumulated, the public has become wary. Until recently, the people losing the most trust have been those who felt that their governments’ responses were too heavy-handed. However, according to our data, the Omicron wave has also chipped away at the trust of those who have been supportive of their government’s approach up until now. Lifting restrictions while cases are soaring can seem like betrayal after two years of seeking to “flatten the curve.”
The key ingredients of an effective pandemic response — communication, trust and a shared sense of threat — are slowly dwindling. This can lead to social strife and will make it harder for leaders to steer their populations out of the crisis.
For two years people have debated the value of masks, vaccine passports and more, to the point that they are no longer opinions but identities. And when opinions become identities, they warp our understanding and make it harder to change one’s mind as the situation changes. The truth is that we are all biased. For example, research shows that in the United States, Republicans tend to overrate the risks of getting vaccinated, and Democrats tend to overrate the risks from the disease.
Without a joint sense of the risks of Covid, and with open questions about things like the likelihood of getting long Covid or how effective the vaccines are at preventing transmission, it can seem increasingly impossible to bridge divides and unite people toward a shared view of what the end of this crisis looks like.
Because Covid-19 vaccines are effective in preventing severe disease from the virus but less effective in preventing infections, the continued spread of the coronavirus in highly vaccinated populations will become a Rorschach test: Everyone will see something different. People who remain worried about getting Covid-19 will see high cases during surges, which will justify their concerns and strengthen their own observance of mask-wearing and distancing. Calls for removing restrictions will seem dangerous. People who are less vulnerable to infection will focus on the lessened severity and do the opposite. They may view calls to keep restrictions in place as unnecessary and infringing on their freedoms.
For people who have been highly vigilant about Covid-19, the end of the pandemic could end up feeling like defeat. At some point, it will be time to lift restrictions and lower the guards. The people they’ve been debating about masks or whether the crisis is improving will then be right. It won’t be because this position was always correct, but because the circumstances have changed.
That’s why strong leadership is so critical for ending the pandemic. As the need for restrictions lessens, it’s up to public health and political leaders to explain why restrictions are being lifted, just as they had to explain why they were being imposed in the first place. Authorities must tell the public why they are placing more responsibility on individuals and, ideally, address the concerns of those who may not be ready, as well as those who remain at higher risk, like the immune compromised.
As we tentatively approach the end of the crisis period of the pandemic, leaders need to help people put risk into perspective. If countries haven’t articulated how they will deal with pandemic trade-offs, they need to do so now. The longer it takes for the realization that the risk from Covid is lowering, the longer the crisis will last and the deeper the divides it will create. Should new variants turn the presumed end (at least for Denmark) into a brief pause, such cleavages will make the next round with the virus even more difficult.