Some Bulgarians Think COVID Restrictions are an Attempt by the Government to Control Them
More than a quarter (26%) of Bulgarians believe the government is using the pandemic to cover up its actions aimed at increasing its control over people's lives. As many (24%) suspect that the motivation of the authorities is in fact their desire to cover up their own incompetence by imitating some activity. Half, however, believe that the government is struggling to control the COVID-19 infection and ensure the safety of citizens.
This is stated in a report from a new poll conducted by the ECFR in 12 EU Member States. According to the report, authored by Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, 18 months after the pandemic began, deep geographical and age divisions could change public attitudes towards the role of the state and the idea of freedom in many EU countries, including Bulgaria.
Bulgarians are among the citizens that say that COVID has strongly influenced their personal lives, and the vast majority believe that the government is to blame for the failure to control the pandemic (45%). Only 31% of Bulgarians feel "free".
The survey found that 54% of Europeans do not feel affected by the pandemic "at all". However, there are two different perceptions of the pandemic. The majority of respondents in Southern and Eastern Europe say they have suffered serious illness, severe losses, or economic hardship. In Western and Northern Europe, most respondents view COVID-19 as observers rather than victims.
In Hungary, 65% of respondents said the virus had affected their privacy, compared with 72% of Danes, who said the pandemic had not affected them "at all". 59% of Bulgarians say that the virus has had a negative impact on their health or financial situation. The survey also shows a discrepancy in perceptions of personal freedom, with only 22% of Europeans currently feeling "free" compared to 64% two years ago. Germans feel the most limited - 49% say they do not have complete freedom in their daily lives. Hungary is the only country out of 12 in which this indicator is high - 88% of respondents say they feel "free" or "partially free".
The study also shows a worrying generational rift. Almost two-thirds (64%) of those aged 60 and 60+ do not feel personally affected by the crisis, while more than half of young people under the age of 30 (57%) report falling ill and facing economic difficulties in the last 18 months.
There is a division between Europeans who see the restrictions imposed by governments as logical and those who see them as a "justification for imposing public scrutiny". Distrust of the government is strongest in Poland - 62% of respondents do not believe in the goodwill of the imposed measures. In France, where many citizens say they have not been personally affected by COVID-19, 44% are skeptical of the government and the strategy to deal with the pandemic.
More than half of the Bulgarians surveyed (54%) believe their government's arguments for imposing restrictive measures.
The data presented in the report "Invisible Divisions in Europe: How Covid-19 Polarizes European Politics" show that the new divisions of the continent caused by the pandemic could have severe consequences for some of Europe's largest projects, such as the free movement of people, and the Recovery Plan. The new dividing lines could affect Europe's relations with the rest of the world, which currently include vaccination diplomacy and foreign aid.
Main conclusions from the sociological survey:
- Most Europeans have not been personally affected by COVID-19. 54% of respondents say that in the last 18 months the pandemic has not caused them serious illness, heavy losses and economic difficulties. This view is most common in Denmark (72%), Germany (65%), France (64%) and the Netherlands (63%).
- However, the answers of the respondents from Southern and Eastern Europe differ. In Hungary (65%), Spain (64%), Portugal (61%), Poland (61%), Bulgaria (59%) and Italy (51%), most respondents noted that COVID-19 had an impact on their personal lives.
- Only 1 in 5 Europeans (22%) feels "free" to live according to their own needs. This is a drop of 64% who felt "free" two years before the crisis. The share of those who feel "unfree" is higher (37%) among those who say that the pandemic has caused economic difficulties, but not health problems, compared to those who have either suffered healthily from the pandemic (26%) or were not affected by COVID-19 at all (25%).
- 48% of respondents believe that people who do not follow the rules, returning from travel and foreign nationals are most responsible for the consequences of COVID-19 in their country. Believers that threats come from other people are mainly in the Netherlands (63%), Portugal (57%), Austria (56%), Sweden (54%), Denmark (54%) and Germany (53%).
- 43% of Europeans believe that the pandemic and its spread are due to governments, incl. national, foreign governments such as China, as well as foreign institutions. In Poland (58%), Spain (57%) and France (52%), the majority supports this thesis. In Italy, a country that received Chinese aid during the first wave, 47% blamed governments and institutions for the outbreak and spread of the pandemic. In Bulgaria, 45% of respondents believe that the responsibility lies with the government.
- There is a big generation gap in Europe. 64% of respondents over the age of 60 say that COVID-19 has not affected them personally. This indicator falls to 43% among young people under 30 years. France and Denmark are the only countries where the majority of respondents under the age of 30 say they have not been affected by the crisis, while exceptions among those over 60 are in Spain, Portugal, Hungary and Poland, where most adults feel affected by the crisis.
- Young people are more likely to doubt the restrictions imposed by governments. 43% of respondents under the age of 30 believe that governments impose lockdowns as an "excuse for public scrutiny" (20%) or to create a feeling that they are "in control of the situation" (23%). 71% of respondents over the age of 60 see lockdown as a way to limit the virus.
- Still, from a pan-European point of view, most citizens believe in government strategies to control the virus. Almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents say that lockdowns aim to limit the spread of COVID-19. Just over half of Bulgarians (54%) trust the government's arguments for imposing measures.
- The majority of respondents in Hungary (71%), Denmark (62%), Bulgaria (56%), Portugal (55%) and Austria (52%) believe that the actions of governments are correct. Lack of trust is still widespread in some parts of Europe. 17% believe that their governments aim to control society through imposed measures. Of all the 12 Member States surveyed, respondents in Poland are the most skeptical. Only 38% believe the government's strategy is to limit the spread of COVID-19. In France, only 24% believe that the government's goal is to control society (the figure reaches 37% among supporters of the right-wing presidential candidate Marie Le Pen).
Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard claim that the story of two pandemics is a story of two Europes. The differences are rooted in the experience of states, reminiscent of the separation between creditors and debtors, host countries and those who refuse to do so.
In its early stages, the pandemic united Europeans. Governments bought vaccines collectively and took the bold step of setting up a recovery fund. However, Europe is already beginning to deal with the long-term effects of COVID-19, and differences in people's personal experiences can be dangerous dividing lines.
The authors warn that governments and the EU may face problems in terms of public health, economic opportunities and perceptions of freedom. Ivan Krastev and Mark Lennard argue that while European governments have rightly focused on rescuing the elderly, now is the time to address the problems of the young.
"During the early stages of the pandemic, Europeans were united by a common problem and a joint response. Since then, however, strong divisions have emerged that could have serious consequences comparable to those caused by the financial and refugee crises.
Due to the pandemic, Europe today is divided between Europeans who have survived and escaped personal trauma; between those who support long-term restrictions and those who believe that our civil liberties must be fully restored. Last but not least, the most disturbing division is between citizens who trust the actions of their national governments and those who do not believe in the motives of their politicians.
These trends are not helping Europe. "They could hinder governments and the EU in their efforts to restore personal freedoms and trigger pandemic recovery mechanisms," said Mark Lennard.
"The EU has been marked by crises since its inception. It is too early to know what the comprehensive effect of COVID-19 will be on European public life. However, through its gradual manifestation, dividing lines could create a new political era in Europe. The differences are visible not only between countries, social tensions are also beginning to be felt.
So far, the most obvious and perhaps most dramatic result of these trends is the generational rift. Governments in Europe have focused on saving the lives of the elderly - and rightly so. However, this action has a price. Representatives of a whole generation have the feeling that their lives have been sacrificed in the name of their parents and elderly relatives. Along with their ongoing efforts to rebuild the continent, politicians must also address the problems of young people.
The pandemic has led to a major change in political talk of freedom: many status quo parties have once again embraced the idea of more government action, while many populist parties have become increasingly libertarian," added Ivan Krastev.
The report and its recommendations are part of an ECFR project that aims to examine what Europeans want from a foreign policy perspective. Previous publications from the Unlock Europe's Majority project include research on how COVID-19 has changed political perceptions over the past 18 months, as well as research on European attitudes and expectations of the United States during Trump and Biden.
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