January 16, 2023 | Piero Tortola

Interpreting the politics of Covid-19 – The analytical framework of REGROUP


The Covid-19 pandemic is an epoch-making event affecting our societies and polities in a number of ways and on different scales. Making sense of the politics of the pandemic in its many facets and their mutual connections is a tall order, which REGROUP tackles by means of a coherent and innovative analytical framework. This article overviews the key ideas guiding our research.

Figure 1: Infographic representing REGROUP’s analytical framework

the REGROUP conceptual background: Crisis, critical juncture, and change

Started as a health emergency in central China in early 2020, Covid-19 rapidly turned into one of the most consequential crises of the 21st century. In a matter of weeks, the virus crossed countless borders straining public health systems to near collapse, and forcing entire populations into unprecedented lockdowns. In the three years since its inception, the pandemic has accounted for almost seven million deaths and untold economic, social, and political damage worldwide. 

Covid-19 has hit Europe hard. As the first liberal-democratic systems to face the full force of the virus, European countries were the first to grapple with the legal and political tensions caused by it. Governments were presented with profound dilemmas between protecting public health and upholding fundamental rights and freedoms, and societies found themselves torn apart by new rifts, increased polarisation and widespread institutional distrust. 

Culminating a politically turbulent decade for Europe, Covid-19 has opened a critical juncture for the continent, that is a phase of social and political fluidity, in which new scope is opened for political agency, leadership, ideas, and contingency to foster political and institutional change. This makes examining the politics of Covid-19 not only interesting intellectually, but also important politically due to the role that scholarship and ideas can have in influencing the scope and direction of change during a critical juncture.

In studying the pandemic through the lenses of crisis and change, REGROUP unpacks the latter into three components: reactive, reflective, and proactive change. The first type refers, as its name suggests, to the direct policy reactions to the Covid-19 emergency, aimed at containing the virus and tackling its immediate effects. Reflective change, is located after the initial phases of the emergency, albeit still dealing with issues and needs closely related to Covid-19. Proactive change, finally, indicates transformations not following directly from the pandemic, but for which the Covid-19 crisis opens an opportunity for significant change. 

Besides providing REGROUP with a framework for a fine-grained study of change, this conceptual unpacking puts forward a novel view of critical junctures as likely to leave “tails” after the emergency phases of a crisis are over, during which important (reflective, and especially proactive) change can occur. This reconceptualisation of critical junctures in turn may bridge traditional punctuated equilibrium models with more recent theories of gradual institutional change, because it sees critical junctures as a necessary condition for significant change, but posits that some of this change may happen over a longer time horizon than often assumed. 

A multi-dimensional research approach

In analysing pandemic politics, REGROUP adopts an approach that is multi-dimensional in three cross-cutting ways: multi-mission; multi-level; and multi-sphere. First, in line with its objectives, REGROUP has a threefold mission: diagnostic, mapping the socio-political dynamics and consequences of Covid-19; evaluative, examining the pandemic from a legal and normative standpoint; prescriptive, formulating actionable advice on post-pandemic governance for the EU. The three missions are inseparable and encapsulate the twofold role of scholarly work in a critical juncture described above. Second, the REGROUP approach is multi-level, as it examines the pandemic and its effects nationally, supranationally, and internationally, and explores the causal connections between these three levels.

Third, REGROUP investigates the pandemic and its effects in multiple spheres of social action. The most prominent of these is the political sphere, further divided into the classic triad of policy, polity and politics. REGROUP explores the new repertoire of policies engendered by the pandemic, unveiling their causes, consequences and mechanisms. It investigates institutions as mediating factors in Covid-19 responses, as well as objects of pandemic-induced transformations. Finally, it examines the impact of Covid-19 on the shapes and dynamics of political competition and contestation in Europe. 

Underlying the political sphere, the societal sphere is studied in three interrelated ways: top-down, focusing on how emergency policies have affected social inequalities and divisions; bottom-up, looking at the consequences of crisis on trust in national and supranational institutions; horizontally, examining how the pandemic has affected solidarity and social cohesion within European citizenries. 

Turning to the ideational sphere, REGROUP explores two types of questions. The first relates to the scope created by the crisis for new ideas to circulate and play a political role, but also for the re-articulation, and political (mis)appropriation of existing ideas such as individual liberty. The second type of questions concerns broader ideational and cultural constructs—such as liberalism, democracy, and sovereignty—as intangible institutions that have come under pressure due to the pandemic.

Cross-cutting the three foregoing spheres is the digital sphere, which has consolidated as a largely autonomous arena presenting challenges as well as opportunities for Europe’s societies and politics. REGROUP examines digitalisation as a tool of governance, as well as a sphere of horizontal social interaction, opening new opportunities for information flows but also distortions such as fake news and conspiracy theories. 


Three analytical themes: Reordering, risk, and resilience

Three analytical themes guide our multi-dimensional research approach: reordering, risk, and resilience. Reordering is closely related to the notion of change, but underscores its durability. Change of each of the three kinds introduced above—reactive, reflective, and proactive—may give rise to new political and policy configurations of varying degrees of permanence. The concept of reordering invites reflection on how likely the outcomes of crisis-induced change are to stick, and truly restructure socio-political interactions.

While most immediately visible in the politico-institutional sphere, the idea of reordering also applies the remaining three spheres examined by REGROUP: societal structures and attitudinal constellations can be reordered, and so can the ideational and normative makeup of a certain community. Finally, reordering can take place in the structure and content of national and transnational digital spheres. REGROUP aims to map pandemic-related reordering (or lack thereof) in all of these contexts, and investigate the factors and agents behind it. 

The relationship between Covid-19 and the notion of risk is difficult to overstate. While the pandemic is not the first nor the last global crisis, it is the one that has made what sociologist Ulrich Beck has dubbed “risk society” immediately tangible and understandable to all parties affected. Yet countries, groups, and individuals have experienced pandemic risk and its consequences in very different ways. These asymmetries are a crucial factor behind the socio-politics of Covid-19, and a key interpretative perspective for our analysis. Asymmetries concern not only exposure to risk, but also perceptions of it—which are in turn influenced by the probability attached to risk, and the balance of values at stake in the pandemic—as well as ideas about the nature of pandemic risk among experts and lay people.

In line with the European Commission, REGROUP defines resilience as “the ability not only to withstand and cope with challenges but also to transform in a sustainable, fair, and democratic manner”. The latter part is crucial because it integrates traditional resilience—a system’s ability to absorb blows—with the more progressive notion of “antifragility”: a system’s ability to change for the better as a result of shocks. Resilience is a powerful descriptive and prescriptive concept connecting directly to the notions of risk and reordering, and an inherently multi-faceted one—including political, economic, societal, environmental, and digital aspects—which fits well with our multi-dimensional approach. 

Studying pandemic politics and governance through the lens of resilience entails three steps. First, mapping pandemic-induced disruptions at different levels and in different spheres described in the foregoing. Second, identifying openings for disrupted systems and institutions to return to their original state, and opportunities for progressive transformation. Building on this analysis, in a third step REGROUP will formulate strategies for the EU to foster resilience-enhancing change within itself and globally, so as to make economic, political, and institutional systems better able to face risks and shocks in a post-pandemic world.