Public Interest vs Individual Liberty: Motivations and Limits for COVID-19 Policy Compliance in Germany and Switzerland in Spring 2020


In contrast to neighbouring countries, German and Swiss authorities refrained from general curfews during the first pandemic wave in spring 2020, calling for solidarity and personal responsibility instead. This study explores why people in Germany and Switzerland were motivated to comply with policy measures during the first wave of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and what factors hindered or limited their motivation. As part of the international research commons “Solidarity in times of pandemics” (SolPan), we interviewed members of the general public in Germany (46 participants) and the German-speaking part of Switzerland (31 participants) in April 2020.

When analyzing the interviews, we identified three themes illustrating what motivated or limited people’s compliance with restrictions. First, we found that social cohesion was an important motivator for compliance: Many participants were willing to comply with restrictions to protect others and for the common good. At the same time, conflicting needs, for example, elderly feeling lonely and isolating, set limits to compliance and left many participants with the dilemma of whether to protecting the elderly from infection by staying away from them or relieving them from their social isolation.

Second, participants also considered the consequences of complying or not complying on both the individual level (eg, consequences of individual infection) and a societal level (eg, the societal and economic consequences of restrictions)

Third, while for some participants following the rules was perceived as a matter of principle, others stressed the importance of making their own risk assessment, which was often associated with a need for evidence on the effectiveness and reasons behind measures.

For restrictive measures to be effective, people need to comply with them. Finding ways to foster a sense of togetherness despite mounting societal and economic problems during the pandemic is crucial. When individuals are convinced that their compliant behaviour is helpful for the common good, many are willing to make personal sacrifices. At the same time, members of the public have opposing preferences concerning rules and information: While some prefer to have strict rules they can follow, others prefer the space to invoke their own discretion about their personal situation and pandemic recommendations.


This blog post was written by Bettina Zimmermann and edited by Nora Hangel. The German-language original version was published on April 28, 2021 on the SolPan homepage of the Technical University of Munich: 

The English-language publication, the results of which this blog post refers to, was published in the International Journal of Health Policy and Management in April 2021. Authors: Bettina Zimmermann, Amelia Fiske, Stuart McLennan, Anna Sierawska, Nora Hangel, Alena Buyx: 

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