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27 November, 2023 | Lorenzo Cicchi

The politics of Covid-19 crisis: Is there a new health-economy cleavage?


The research paper “The Health–Economy Divide: A Structural Analysis of Sectoral Affectedness and Covid-19 Policy Preferences in Europe” delves into the complex relationship between the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on various economic sectors and the preferences for policies addressing the crisis. Its goal is to address the politics of Covid-19, namely the politicization of the policies related to the pandemic and the resulting contestation of the measures that prioritized either public health and the sustainability of countries’ health infrastructures, or the national economies by saving jobs, maintaining salaries and avoiding closures. The empirical analysis of this paper includes 17 European countries and is based on three main sources: individual-level data from the 10th wave of the European Social Survey (ESS), and party-level data from the PopuList and Chapel Hill expert survey projects.


Sectoral affectedness, individual preferences and politicization

In the wake of the pandemic, Europe experienced an asymmetric impact, leading to differing views on reopening the economy versus implementing strict health-related lockdowns. A new “health–economy” divide has emerged, opposing the interests of those in favour of keeping economic activities running to those in supporting, or at least tolerant to, closures meant to limit the contagion, and therefore prioritizing public health. 

The paper examines how different economic sectors were hit, on the basis of a novel conceptualization of affectedness as defined by two concepts—essentiality and physicality of economic activities—leading to four dyads. Expectedly, physical/non-essential sectors such as hospitality, tourism, and real estate were hit the hardest, resulting in significant job losses, reduced working hours, and financial setbacks. On the other hand, non-physical/essential industries like financial services and telecommunications faced fewer disruptions, also being able to adapt more readily to remote working environments. To understand how this affectedness translated into policy preferences linked to the new health-economy dimension, the paper explores the nuanced interplay between individual attitudes (such as trust in scientists), party identification, and other political factors, taking into account how actors politicize and frame such preferences. 

Surprisingly, however, our results indicate that the extent of people’s economic hardship did not significantly influence their stance on pandemic-related policies. Instead, personal beliefs and values, including ideological leanings and trust in scientists, emerge as key drivers of policy preferences. More precisely, people with right-leaning political inclinations tended to prioritize economic activities, while individuals with higher trust in scientists leaned towards supporting public health measures. These findings suggest that personal values and political ideologies played a crucial role in shaping people’s perspectives on how to tackle the pandemic. Moreover, the study uncovers a tenuous yet noteworthy connection between the degree of pandemic affectedness and identification with populist parties. This alignment hints at the continuation of existing trends, where those most impacted by the crisis found resonance with political parties that acknowledged their struggles: in other words, the Covid-19 emergency at least partially overlaps with the “winners–losers” fault line, emerging from previous crises.


No reordering of the European cleavage structure

All things considered, the European cleavage structure does not seem to have witnessed a substantial reordering towards materialism, but rather a confirmation of pre-existing trends. By offering valuable insights into the complex interplay of economic structures, individual attitudes, and political identifications, the study provides a nuanced understanding of how societies navigate through unprecedented crises. As the world grapples with the aftermath of the pandemic, such insights can guide policymakers in formulating effective strategies for building resilience and addressing future challenges.


This article highlights some of the findings in the REGROUP paper “The Health–Economy Divide: A Structural Analysis of Sectoral Affectedness and Covid-19 Policy Preferences in Europe“.