COVID-19: A slippery slope or a turning point of polarisation?

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COVID-19: A slippery slope or a turning point of polarisation?

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected polarisation? Only time will tell whether it was a slippery slope or a turning point.

Unexpected global upheaval

The first information about an outbreak of a novel virus in China at the end of 2019 did not forecast a global upheaval. Yet, over 2 years, 6 million deaths, and 10 billion vaccine doses later,[1] it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has redefined our understanding of globalisation, public health, social welfare, and many other things. It also offered insight into the importance of social sustainability. While multiple, highly effective vaccinations have been developed and provided to the broader public in record time, their rollout was anything but smooth. Other measures were also deeply contested by large parts of societies worldwide.

Affective polarisation is the leading cause behind problems in Europe

Affective polarisation has been both a cause and an effect of the social problems during the pandemic in Europe. Peaking during the 2010s,[2] [3] [4] polarisation constituted a significant hindrance in dealing with one of the most significant global crises after the Second World War.

Quo Vadis Europe?

While polarisation was a significant problem during the pandemic, what happened with it over the last two years? Was the COVID-19 outbreak a slippery slope, which deepened the existing problems? Or was it a turning point, redirecting us towards a better future? The data responding to these questions is still unclear, with suggestions pointing to both answers. The articles prepared for the EARS round table on A Pandemic of Polarisation are taking a closer look at some areas that might help us better understand where will we find ourselves post-pandemic.

Vaccines and conspiracy theories are primarily about belief and trust

Accompanied by issues such as misinformation about the vaccines and the rising conspiracy theories, belief and trust, two phenomena that are hard to completely differentiate from each other, played a significant role in the polarised public during the pandemic. As Muhammad Faisal Khalil points out in his article , the left- and the right-wing were split in terms of whom they trusted and believed. However, these choices were not dominated by their religious positions, as sometimes suggested,[5] but by their political stances. The left-wing voters located their trust in the public authorities, the right-wing ones in alternative sources, including, but not exclusively following the religious authorities. Thus, as Khalil concludes, how belief will be approached going forward will influence the direction of polarisation tendencies.

Looking for a scapegoat

Identity and classification were two further terms crucial for understanding the development of polarisation during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. As Ghila Amati shows in her article , while both secular and religious leaders called for solidarity, the pandemic led to a significant split between different groups: the secular and the religious, the majority and the minority. Amati highlights the dynamics of scapegoating that increased the polarisation in a destructive blame game, reinvigorating old conflicts and creating new ones.

What will the rising insecurity lead to?

Instead of receding, at what seems to be the end of the pandemic, the insecurity increased further in Europe due to the compilation of the cost-of-living crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the nuclear threat. How will it fare for polarisation? In his article , Ryszard Bobrowicz argues that it has the potential to both increase and decrease polarisation. The key question is whether the burdens will be shared equally between individuals and whether coalitions will be built across the national, political, class, and religious boundaries.

Despite the uncertainty, we can act today

As with all complex questions, there are no clear answers on the horizon concerning the effects of COVID-19 on polarisation. Only time will tell whether it was a slippery slope or a turning point for polarisation. The short-term effects of the pandemic on polarisation are unclear. The long-term effects are still unknown. Nonetheless, it is clear that there is a potential for improvement of the situation. The writers in this round table point towards areas and problems that need to be addressed and concrete actions that can be undertaken in order for the polarisation to decrease.

Ryszard Bobrowicz

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[1] COVID-19 Map – Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center (jhu.edu)

[2] Partisan Polarization Reaching Record Levels (nymag.com)

[3] Polarization in Europe: Public Opinion and EU Foreign Policy

[4] Frontiers | Polarization: What Do We Know and What Can We Do About It? | Political Science (frontiersin.org)

[5] Anti-vaccine sentiment rife in Poland | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 31.12.2020