Discuss democracy in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the midst of a democratic recession. Globally, the public’s commitment to the most fundamental tenet of democracy–regular elections–has been wavering [1, 2]. Early research suggests that, much like the introduction of threats to national security from abroad, the COVID-19 pandemic may initially increase support for the incumbent administration [3, 4].
Some argue that such an inclination bodes well for democracy , while others warn that it includes a greater willingness to trade off basic freedoms [6, 7]. However, as is often the case, the majority of public opinion research related to the pandemic has focused on developed, wealthy democracies. How might a monumental health crisis shape attitudes in less developed contexts where the public’s commitment to the incumbent administration and democracy itself is already weaker?
We provide one answer to this question with data from survey experiments fielded in Haiti. Prior to the pandemic, Haitian politics was rife with corruption , waves of turbulent protests against an unpopular president had caused schools and businesses to close , support for democracy was low , and violence had become such a threat to public safety that even the annual Carnival celebration was canceled in February 2020 .
Given the weak position in which both the president and democracy found themselves at the dawn of the pandemic, Haiti was an unlikely case for a rally effect and a likely case for decreased support for democracy.
Our goal was to assess whether and how the mere appearance of a new crisis–the COVID-19 pandemic–would shift public opinion toward the president, elections, and democracy. To do so, we embedded two experiments in a phone survey that was administered to a nationally representative sample of Haitians in April-June 2020.
The first experiment primed the pandemic: a random half received a 10-question COVID-19 module prior to a set of questions about presidential approval, commitment to elections, and democracy; the other half received these same questions after the political attitudes module. The second experiment randomly assigned individuals to consider the appropriateness of permitting the president to postpone elections in one of two conditions: violence or the pandemic.
The design unobtrusively primes the pandemic in order to observe what happens at the onset of a major public health crisis. Priming occurs when a factor (e.g., the pandemic) is made accessible and applicable to individuals’ judgments . Priming effects work through one, or both, of the mind’s two core processing systems: uncontrolled/automatic or controlled/reasoned .
Our study was not designed to adjudicate between these mechanisms, yet we note that it was implemented when the public was not yet saturated with information about the pandemic. According to Johns Hopkins data from May 2, 2020, around the start of our survey, there were just under 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Haiti. Further, only a limited set of social distancing policies was in place, and under-enforced .
In short, the public had little information to lean on when prompted to bring the pandemic to the “top of their heads”. Within this context, our study offers a unique perspective on how public opinion in a country beleaguered with institutional, economic, and social challenges bends when confronted with the specter of a major health crisis
Link to this article: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0253485