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HOPE in times of a pandemic crisis such as COVID-19

How do we react in times of crisis, do we trust what our governments and their experts are saying and will we act accordingly?HOPE tries to provide an answer.

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By Inger Stokkink

Interview with Michael Bang Petersen about the large-scale research project HOPE: How Democracies Cope with COVID-19: A Data-Driven Approach.

On 27 February, the first case in Denmark of the corona virus, also known as COVID-19, was registered. On March 19th, one of the main research funds in Denmark, Carlsbergfondet, granted a whopping DKK 27.4 million to a research group called HOPE.

Their central research question: How Democracies Cope with COVID-19: A Data-Driven Approach.

One of the leaders of this project is Michael Bang Petersen. He teaches political science at Aarhus University and one of his expertise areas is the way psychological factors influence political processes.

He is also responsible for the surveys of the HOPE project and has had an advisory role to the Danish Government from the start of the corona crisis in Denmark, right up to the most recent controversial corona case: the mink scandal.

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Find more information about the HOPE project iself in our fact box at the end of the article.

Q: But first: why the name HOPE?

Everything happened very fast at the beginning of the corona crisis. We were looking for an acronym which had some aspect of positivity in it, because one of the goals of the project is how to get through this crisis as well as possible, all together.

So that’s why we chose Hope: How Democracies Cope with COVID-19. We didn’t have many days to consider!

Q:Why and how did everything happen so fast? Hiring and firing happens quickly in Denmark, is that how we should see it, or is it something else?

What became clear to me in the very early phase of the pandemic was that this was not just a medical crisis but also a crisis of leadership and communication.

We citizens need to change our behaviour and to be able to do that we need to be guided in transparent and trustworthy ways by our politicians. That was my main thought in the beginning.

Then things started to happen very quickly. I was in a meeting on the day of the lockdown with Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunike. One of the ideas that I was promoting to him, but also to others, was the idea to rely on the findings of social science to get us through the pandemic.

Around the same time a Danish research company, Epinion, contacted me. They had heard about my ideas to conduct surveys about corona and wanted to help. We began collecting data.

At that point we didn’t have any funding yet, shortly after that the Carlsberg Foundation contacted me. They wanted to invest in research about COVID-19 and said that they were interested in my application if I had one.

We made one at rocket speed and The Carlsberg Foundation also flashed our project through their procedures. Usually such an application process takes half a year, so yes, this was unusually fast.

One of the tricky things was that we did not know what was going to be important.

That would show itself as the pandemic unfolded. Looking back, we were quite accurate, but one thing escaped us in the beginning and that was face masks.

We knew it was part of the tool kit the authorities had at their disposal, but we did not think of face masks becoming so important – and so much disputed.

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Q:What is the most important contribution HOPE has made to the government’s way of tackling corona?

I don’t know. Advising a government is usually not followed up with a lot of feedback.

My hope is that the research project will contribute to help us to navigate out of the crisis. And good research of course.

But I think that we have made key contributions in managing a pandemic.

Reacting on hospital data, for example, is too late: by then people are already ill and many, many more are being infected. You need a better understanding of human behaviour to be ahead of the pandemic: what people are doing, but also thinking and feeling, is crucial.

We need to feel capable of following guidelines from the government and authorities like Sundhedsstyrelsen (ed. The health Board) and Statens Seruminstitut (ed. The Danish Institute of Infectious Diseases).

Trust in authorities will be translated into the way people behave. Providing that understanding, I hope, is the contribution of the HOPE project to pandemic management in general. To dare to think outside of the medical expertise box.

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Q: What is the most striking result you have found so far?

Basically, we thought that people could not hold out over a prolonged period. But people adjust and they act flexibly. They relax when infection levels go down and tighten up their routines when levels go up again, in the case of social distancing for example.

We also noticed that people are assessing the situation themselves and act according to what is necessary.

What is interesting is that because of this, guidelines work more quickly and more effective than initially anticipated – even before restrictions are in place. That is really a major resource in dealing with a crisis like this: the enormous adaptability of the people and their willingness to do so.

They have agency; they are in control of their lives. The pandemic does not just happen to them, they know what to do and they know that it makes a difference.

Q: HOPE also conducts research in other countries, such as the USA, the United Kingdom and Hungary (LINK). Have you noticed the population acting the same way there?

We do not have that level of detailed, fine-mazed data in other countries. But we can see, also there, that the feeling of agency among citizens is crucial for the effectiveness of policies from both government and authorities.

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Q: Only recently the policy of both the government and the authorities regarding the mink farms in Northern-Jutland became the centre of a scandal. Politicians, experts and of course the people involved questioned the drastic measures that started to be carried out in a hurry: the lockdown of a region and the culling of all mink populations of all mink farms in Denmark. What would your advice be here?

I think this is something that the government, the authorities, and the oppositional parties in the Danish Parliament need to take seriously. Authority loss is a problem for all of us. People may not be so adaptive when they lose trust. The most important lesson here is: how can we learn from this?

Before I go on, let me stress that all involved needed to adjust to the facts as they appeared – it was not a case of a rounded, well-defined problem here. Having said that, I think that the mink case shows three layers of problems.

The first layer of problems is that there was disagreement among the academics, especially on the lockdown of Northern Jutland. There was more agreement about the urgency of having minks killed.

The second layer is about communication. How do you explain the academic background for concrete measures such as a lockdown, or culling minks? In the beginning the government focused on the cluster-5 mutation, but later it turned out to be more complicated than that. Part of the problem was this exclusive focus.

The third layer has to do with the fact that the legal framework was not in place for culling the minks. That exploded in the Folketing (ed. Danish Parliament) for obvious reasons: you cannot apply rules that are unlawful.

And it is also a textbook example of what you learn in your first year in political science: if you have polarization at the political level, you will find polarization among citizens, too. Differences become sharper and it becomes harder to find common solutions.

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Q: Does the mink scandal not confirm the ideas that people have about scientists and politicians? Academics in their ivory towers, far from the dirty reality of culling minks, and politicians wanting to exploit a scandal for their own political power games? How can they deal with that?

Stereotypes are always hard to eradicate. There is actually a pretty large amount of trust in science in Denmark also before the pandemic broke out. In social media you will find more controversy, but in general, trust in scientists is high.

The challenge for politicians is to earn people’s trust in exactly this case. It is therefore very, very important for politicians to be transparent and to be so as much as they possibly can. Because decisions are costly and hurt.

Somebody has to pay a price and that is hard – even more so when there are no gains but only losses. Right now, the mink farmers are paying a very high price for the benefit of public health.

In cases where people have to pay a price for something that is not directly for their own benefit, what we could call distributional injustice, you really need to have your procedures in order.

In other words: procedural justice is next-best.

To recap what I said before: the mantra consists of three words: transparency, transparency, and transparency.

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Q: What can we do as common citizens in Denmark? Dealing with corona, if I understand HOPE correctly, is all about ’frygt’( ed. fear) and ’fællesskab’ (ed. community): on the one hand our innate fear to stay away from (sources of) contamination, on the other hand our fundamental need for human contact. We need to strike a balance between the two, in very uncertain circumstances. In other words, what can we do to help ourselves through this?

On a psychological level we are intuitively afraid of infections and that is one of the reasons why we keep our distance to strangers. But now we need to keep our distance to friends and family, too. That takes a toll on our mental well-being.

It is important to find out what our manoeuvring space is, how much room we have for meeting people. Meeting people using digital media is important as well, but how can you meet people in real life, in a safe way?

The role for the authorities here is to help people to find ways to meet each other without any sense of shame. Because this is a long-haul crisis.

Most likely we haven’t seen the peak of the second wave yet. So, we have to be careful, but also creative.

Interview with Michael Bang Petersen by Inger Stokkink. Picture: PR The Hope Project

About HOPE: “How Democracies Cope with COVID-19: A Data-Driven Approach”.

The HOPE project constitutes an unprecedented research project which examines the interrelationship between

the trajectory of the COVID-19 epidemic

the decisions of governments and international organisations

the decisions of media and social media landscapes

citizens’ behaviour and well-being

To this end is used the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding in the middle of the “big data” revolution. For the first time in human history, we are able to measure with extreme precision and time-resolution how governments and citizens react (and with what consequences) during an extremely severe crisis.

In this study we use the term Agency which in social science is defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

The research is done by: Data experts, anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists – all in all thirty people, spread over four research groups clustered around these professors:

Michael Bang Petersen (Aarhus University) – surveys, political science

Rebekka Adler-Nissen (Copenhagen University) – ethnographic research

Social Media analysis Andreas Roepstorff (Aarhus University) – ethnographic research

Social Media analysis Sune Lehmann Jørgensen (DTU) – mobility data

Curious about the research project?

The research results are being updated and made available to the government, the authorities and the general public on a regular basis here

Source: The Hope Project