COVID-19 and the social contract in Latin America: Citizens views of national responses one year on

May 18, 2021

COVID-19 broke out at a time in which several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean were already experiencing significant social and political strain as evidenced, for instance, by the wave of massive protests that took place in 2019. In many ways, the pandemic exposed and exacerbated preexisting tensions. However, it also created a “reset” opportunity and an opening to reimagine and transform faltering models of governance and development.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is also a crisis of governance and that, as such, it is having a significant impact on views of the state and the social contract. In order to assess this impact, the UNDP Regional Hub for Latin America and the Caribbean partnered with CID Gallup to carry out a perception survey in 10 countries across the region.[1] The survey, which covered a representative sample of approximately 12,000 people, took place between September and October 2020. It captures, therefore, citizens’ impressions after the initial phase of national responses.

The picture that emerged from the study is one of significant complexity and includes both encouraging and worrying elements.

Some satisfaction with widespread frustration

Based on the survey results, there is a broad recognition – across the countries considered – of the efforts that have been made by authorities to protect the health of citizens under extremely challenging circumstances.  In fact, in seven of the ten countries surveyed, a relative majority of people described their national health response as somewhat or very effective. Yet, there is widespread frustration with public institutions’ limited success in shielding households from the economic impact of the pandemic. In only two of the countries considered, a relative majority of respondents described the economic response as at least reasonably effective. 

Figure 1. Assessments of response effectiveness*

* All diagrammes (unless otherwise specified): UNDP analysis based on CID Gallup data

No effectiveness without fairness

Evaluations of the fairness of national responses turned out to be significantly higher than it could have been expected given the deep distrust of political processes that is prevalent in the region. Nonetheless, a relative majority of respondents (48.6 percent) believes that the decisions taken by governments in the face of COVID-19 were mainly driven by the interests of a privileged few. Importantly, evaluations of fairness and evaluations of effectiveness appear to be closely correlated. Respondents who feel that the interests of the privileged significantly influenced the response, also believe that the response ended up being ineffective. As a matter of fact, perceived fairness appears to be a better predictor of perceived effectiveness than confirmed COVID-19 deaths.

Figure 2. Assessments of response fairness

* Percentage of respondents per country

** COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. Limited testing and number of deaths from COVID-19.

Signs of democratic resilience?

Satisfaction with the functioning of democracy and support for democracy as a form of government have been declining in Latin America and some Caribbean countries over the last years. Against this background, there is a risk that COVID-19 may result in an intensification of populist tendencies and democratic backsliding across the region. However, based on the survey results, the initial phase of COVID-19 responses does not seem to have given rise to widespread support for unfettered government action. Nor has it led people to call for more effective mechanisms to limit individual freedoms. In fact, when asked to comment on COVID-19 lessons learnt, a majority of respondents highlighted the need for greater (not lesser) government accountability and stronger (not weaker) human rights protection in their country. 

Figure 3. COVID-19 and lessons learnt for the governance system

Priorities for the way forward

The survey results evidence a broad consensus across countries and population segments around the need to eliminate corruption to enable an effective and sustainable recovery. In fact, over a third of respondents highlights this as the number one priority for their country. “More solidarity among the people” and “A more responsible political system” are also seen as top priorities, although with a lower level of support (21.1 and 18 percent respectively). At the same time, a closer look at the data reveals important differences in priority setting along both demographic factors and social class, which will no doubt require inclusive and effective dialogue processes to be resolved. An especially salient gap appears to be emerging between the respondents that describe themselves as belonging to the “lower middle class” and those that self-identify as “upper class”.

Figure 4. Priorities for an effective recovery

The consensus of a series of high-level consultations on effective governance in our region was that “if we emerge from this pandemic without having established clear parameters that strengthen effective governance, we will have wasted an opportunity”. Several key decisions that are going to be taken in the next months – for instance around vaccination roll-out or fiscal policy – will likely have profound implications for the future of the region. The findings that emerge from the survey provide an important baseline to understand how COVID-19 will be impacting perceptions of governance and state-citizens relations in different contexts, but also a reminder of key concerns which should be given careful and deliberate consideration at this critical juncture.