To be fair or effective: Citizens’ views of COVID-19 responses in Latin America and the Caribbean
September 15, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an especially strong impact on Latin America and the Caribbean, accounting for more than 1.6 million confirmed deaths and significant economic contraction and impacting countries that were already experiencing heightened social and political strain, affecting governance dynamics at multiple levels.
To understand how the pandemic has been influencing views of the state and the social contract, in September 2020 UNDP in Latin America and the Caribbean commissioned a perception survey in 10 countries: Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, and, Peru.
In September 2021, a second survey with the same set of questions was carried out in the same countries and three more (Bolivia, Chile, and Mexico) to explore the evolution of citizen perspectives.
The questionnaire, which collected the opinions of a representative sample of over 15,000 citizens, covers several issues, including the effectiveness and fairness of COVID-19 responses, perceived governance reform needs, and policy priorities for the post-pandemic recovery.
Consolidating perceptions of fairness
Close to half of the people interviewed (49.4 percent) expressed that the COVID-19 response in their country had been primarily informed by the interest of the majority, while 44.7 percent of respondents believe that the primary driver of authorities’ decisions were the interests of a privileged few. Although this evaluation is not especially positive per se, it is significantly higher than what could have been expected given the deeply entrenched attitudes of distrust towards public institutions that characterize the region.
It is also important to note that the 2021 evaluation of response fairness represents a non-negligible improvement compared to the overall assessment documented in 2020 when 44.7 of respondents described the national response as reasonably fair and 48.6 percent as unfair. In fact, in 2020, 3 out of 10 countries had a positive net evaluation of response fairness against 8 out of 13 in 2021.
From perceived commitment to fairness to recovering trust?
In the report “The Great Reset: Public Opinion, Populism, and the Pandemic”, the Centre for the Future of Democracy of Cambridge University describes a global weakening of core populist beliefs – such as the notion that public life is fully captured by corrupt elites – since the beginning of the pandemic. Could an acknowledgment of genuine efforts to ensure the equity of COVID-19 responses lead to a broader reevaluation of the integrity of public decision-making in Latin America and the Caribbean?
It is possible that the perception of a commitment to fairness on the part of authorities in the COVID-19 context may have contributed to the (slight) improvement of trust towards institutions documented by Latinobarometro in its last wave. Undoubtedly more time and further analysis will be needed to assess this hypothesis and – if a link can be indeed demonstrated – to evaluate its strength and durability. However, there may be an opportunity here, which is important not to overlook.
Approval of health responses is (more or less) holding up…
The assessment of health responses across the region remains moderately positive. 44.2 percent of survey respondents would describe measures taken to protect the health of citizens in their country as effective, while 38 percent believe that these measures did not have sufficient impact. As a result, a positive net evaluation of health responses is observed in 8 of the 13 countries covered by the survey.
It should be noted, however, that the overall appraisal of health-focused interventions has somewhat deteriorated compared to 2020. At that time, in fact, 46.7 percent of respondents would assess the health response in their country as effective, with 7 out of 10 countries characterized by a positive net evaluation.
… but economic worries are deepening
Despite signs of economic recovery across the region towards the end of 2021-(at least in terms of overall economic output-, the evaluation of economic responses to COVID-19 remains very negative. Only 1 out of 3 respondents believe that measures taken to protect households from the economic impact of the pandemic were sufficient, while 50 percent consider that these measures were “ineffective” or “very ineffective”. Accordingly, only 2 out of 13 countries received a positive net evaluation of economic responses.
These results represent a further deterioration of an already negative assessment in 2020, when 37.7 percent of the citizens interviewed as part of the survey thought that the economic response in their country had been reasonably effective, against 42.7 percent who considered it ineffective.
The data appears to be pointing to faint but potentially positive signals regarding perceived fairness as well as mixed reviews regarding effectiveness, with especially negative assessments of measures taken in the economic field.