Solidarity without an Expiration Date

10.06.2021

We need solidarity to get through the crisis. But as long as the government conceives of solidarity as the individual responsibility of citizens, solidarity will never be sustainable. This is what we’ve learned from a longitudinal qualitative study on solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is a translation of an essay published by the Dutch philosophy blog Bij Nader Inzien on 20 May 2021, bijnaderinzien.com/2021/05/20/hoe-blijven-we-solidair-in-een-pandemie/

 

Written by Noa Fuks (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands), Marjolein Lanzing (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands), Katharina Paul (University of Vienna, Austria), Tamar Sharon (Radboud University, Netherlands), Lotje Siffels (Radboud University, Netherlands), Marieke van der Steen (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)

 

“Together, we’ll get coronavirus under control”. Since March 2020, this battle cry has become ingrained in the pandemic consciousness of Dutch citizens. Lighting up on highways at night, repeated after every announcement about the contact-tracing app, and spread across banners at every press conference.

 

Solidarity is the backdrop against which the government’s corona guidelines have been formulated since the beginning of the pandemic. The advice to work from home, to keep our distance and to run errands for our elderly neighbors. The advice not to meet up with our friends, to call our grandmothers more frequently and to refrain from visiting family members in care institutions. The advice to think along with our employees who are trying to combine school and work with three kids and two cats in a 50m2 apartment. The constant appeals to solidarity and togetherness are not surprising. In liberal democracies, where protecting the collective should not come at the cost of individual freedom, solidarity is key, certainly in times of crisis. In the early stages of the pandemic, we welcomed the government’s approach, appealing to the common sense and responsibility of citizens. No one would compel us to do anything. After all, solidarity cannot be imposed.

 

But when the infection rates started rising again last fall, it wasn’t so clear the Netherlands was getting it right. Solidarity, clearly so crucial, seemed to be on the decline when we needed it most. Was this really just an effect of “pandemic fatigue”, as many suspected? 

 

Solidarity in times of a pandemic

In the past year, we conducted research into pandemic solidarity in nine European countries, asking over 600 interviewees how they experienced the pandemic and governmental measures in their respective countries, first in March of 2020 and then again in October 2020.[1]The interviews we held in the Netherlands confirm the sense that solidarity declined over time: At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, our interviewees were positive about the many solidaristic initiatives and practices they observed around them. They were positive about a strengthened sense of community and how nicely everyone was following the rules. But when we spoke with them again in October of last year, the initial outpouring of solidarity they had reported seemed to have run dry.

 

In its place, we heard about all kinds of “anti-solidaristic” behaviour. A supermarket employee who was frustrated that customers no longer kept their distance. Healthcare workers who increasingly saw people coming to their facilities refusing to wear face masks, or who were confronted with aggressive behaviour. Others spoke about non-compliance with government measures in general. In some cases, they mentioned growing polarization between different groups, young people no longer agreeing to “put their lives on hold” for the elderly, or the self-employed feeling less supported than other groups. Or, café and restaurant owners who thought it was unfair that hotels could keep their kitchens and bars open when they couldn’t.  Solidarity seemed to be both decreasing and fragmenting.

 

At the same time, more and more of the people we interviewed said that they followed their own interpretation of the rules, often skirting the limits of what was allowed. They justified this by pointing out all the people in the country who didn’t care about the rules, as seen on the news and around them. “Solidarity is hard to find”, sighed one of our interviewees when describing what she saw around her.

 

This may not come as a surprise. Immediate threats, such as wars and pandemics, often see a surge in solidarity, which then diminishes as that threat becomes normalized as a part of everyday life. But the decline or dwindling of solidarity that our interviewees alluded to between March and October cannot entirely be reduced to “pandemic fatigue”. We think it is also caused  by the absence of robust institutional arrangements – and adequate social and material conditions – that are required to make solidarity last. Specifically, we observe a lack of institutional support that would enable citizens to comply with pandemic measures and practice solidarity with more ease and as part of their everyday life. Such preconditions for durable pandemic solidarity have not been a central part of the Dutch corona policy. In this policy, solidarity has been framed as the responsibility of individual citizens, and delegated to them as such.

 

What is solidarity?

Solidarity is best defined as a practice that expresses the willingness to support others with whom we recognize some similarity.[2] When we hear Prime Minister Mark Rutte proudly mention examples of Dutch pandemic solidarity, such as neighbours walking each other’s dogs, it may seem as if solidarity only takes place between individuals, at an inter-personal level. But solidarity is a practice which can also – and historically has been – solidified in institutional arrangements. Think of universal healthcare, or social security systems, which all citizens contribute to by paying taxes (a “willingness to support”) in light of risks and vulnerabilities that they share (“similarity”). These provide an infrastructure in which solidarity becomes both materialized and normalized.

 

While we saw many examples of inter-personal solidarity in our interviews at the start of the crisis – preparing meals or doing the shopping for elderly neighbours, supporting local entrepreneurs, sending cakes and sweets to the care-workers caring for one’s parents – it is precisely these practices that began to disintegrate by the time we did our second round of interviews in October. These forms of  inter-personal solidarity require support to survive, and it is the government’s role to help sustain them  by providing the conditions for their  survival in the form of policy instruments – only some of them financial in kind – and rules that support solidaristic behaviour.

 

This is not to say that no such solidarity-supportive policies were implemented in the Netherlands. The financial support packages provided to entrepreneurs who lost their income by the lockdown and the opening of childcare facilities for key workers are important examples. But these were rare. When we were (finally) asked to wear facemasks, there was no plan to provide free masks where necessary (as in France or Austria). When schools closed, no government support was provided to parents who had to juggle work and home schooling, let alone to single parents in this situation. Parents were actually told by Health Minister de Jonge that closing schools was a means of making sure working parents stayed home. At the same time, there was no requirement that employers would make it possible for employees to work from home, and as a consequence, many people felt pressured into going to the office and attending in-person meetings. And when the curfew was imposed, there were no guidelines stipulating that employers should offer young people – arguably hardest hit by the curfew – the possibility to work flexible hours, allowing them to socialize during the day and comply with the curfew at night.

 

Shared responsibility

Concrete measures and conditions are one thing. Next to this, the feelings of commonality and reciprocity that underpin solidarity also require a sense of shared responsibility. No easy task for a government which places most of the responsibility for following the rules on citizens themselves. Both Prime Minister Rutte and Health Minister de Jonge emphasized from the start of the crisis that they did not want to be paternalistic, that they did not want to tell people what to do, seeing that Dutch citizens are “intelligent” and “responsible” people. In other words, citizens were expected to act appropriately and in a solidaristic fashion, not because the government told them to, but because it would be in the public interest, for which each individual is responsible. This left a lot of uncertainty about the role of the government in all this.

 

This hands-off approach undermines solidarity in two ways. First, when citizens cannot rely on institutional support, they may be less capable of acting in ways that support others. Second, they may be less motivated to do so. As infection rates took a turn for the worse in the fall, the government repeatedly attributed this to individuals who were not complying. In turn, our respondents spoke of a growing mistrust of their fellow citizens. While many said that they were sticking to the rules, they felt like other people weren’t.[3]

 

Indeed, at the start of the pandemic, the people we interviewed were proud to be taken seriously by the government, as intelligent and responsible citizens. When we spoke to them in October, they were mostly angry. Not at the government, but at each other.

 

Disobedient?

Is this image of disobedient, egoistic individuals justified? Many people have made serious efforts to comply with restrictions and guidelines, but were losing their patience by October 2020. Policy plays an important role here. By merely providing “advice” and appealing to people’s “common sense”, the government created a climate in which it became difficult to maintain solidarity. 

 

The policy pursued by the Dutch government has been a laissez-faire variant in which solidarity is expected of citizens, but is not enabled, and in which everyone decides for themselves, whether this concerns face mask wearing, working from home or shopping for others. The government only advises and does not mandate or institutionally support such practices. In practice, this invites mutual mistrust in free riders: Am I doing too much? Is my neighbour doing too little? Why are they allowed to go to work? Am I being suckered?

 

Solidarity’s expiration date

Solidarity is key for liberal democracies in times of crisis. But it is too easy to dismiss the waning of solidarity in the Netherlands as “pandemic fatigue”. Sustainable, robust and resilient solidarity requires social and economic support at the institutional level, which cannot be nurtured in an environment where no one is accountable and where all responsibility lies with individuals. The government should pay close attention to the numerous creative initiatives of inter-personal solidarity which our interviewees spoke of, and support them in order to help them thrive and survive. For solidarity not to have an expiration date, the government must also be in solidarity with its citizens.

 


[1] For more information on the “Solidarity in times of a pandemic”. For more information: https://digigov.univie.ac.at/solidarity-in-times-of-a-pandemic-solpan/

Note: Our last interviews were conducted before the curfew measure was implemented. We have therefore not included the effects and reactions to this in this piece.

[2] We use the definition of political scientist Barbara Prainsack and ethicist Alena Buyx: https://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/democratic-theory/7/2/dt070215.xml

[3] Pyschologist Stephen Reicher has shown this in the UK setting as well: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/15/lockdown-rules-blaming-covidiots-compliance

 

 

 

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