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Voters unlikely to reward or punish politicians for their handling the pandemic: Survey

Our Bureau New Delhi | Updated on October 23, 2020 Published on October 23, 2020

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Health is often politicised, but it’s not clear if public health issues influence public opinion and if these opinions might translate into voting behaviour

Politicians can probably take heart that their handling of the pandemic is unlikely to be a factor for voters during the elections.

A survey carried out in India, the UK and the US and published in the online journal BMJ Global Health shows that the electorate are unlikely to punish or reward politicians for their failures or successes in dealing with the pandemic, which has affected more than 42 million and killed 1.14 million globally.

This is despite the fact that most survey participants think health is a key policy area and that their government is to blame for the spread of Covid-19, shows the study, which forms part of a BMJ Collection on Democracy and Health published for the World Health Summit this weekend.

Health is often politicised, but it’s not clear if public health issues influence public opinion and if these opinions might translate into voting behaviour.

Also read: A non-existent Covid vaccine gets caught in a political storm

The researchers reasoned that because Covid-19 is global in scope and the focus of intense media interest, the pandemic offers a unique opportunity to observe the interplay between public opinion and electoral politics.

Covid at centrestage

How political leaders and parties have handled the pandemic has been front and centre of news coverage, suggesting that if public health matters to voting intentions, Covid-19 would seem to be a perfect storm, said the researchers.

To explore this further, they ran surveys on the health and economic impacts of the pandemic in the US, UK, and India during mid-April to early June, recruiting nearly 3,000 participants, half of whom came from the US.

The format of the survey involved revealing key facts about either the economic impact of the pandemic or the health impact (2 ‘treatment’ groups), or revealing no key facts (comparison group).

Respondents were then asked questions designed to uncover attitudes towards their government, including its leader, and potential voting intentions if an election were held that day. They were also asked if they held their government responsible for the spread of Covid-19.

The economic facts covered the scale of job losses, overall shrinkage of the economy, and the impact on the stock market in each of the three countries. The health facts covered the numbers of projected hospital admissions, including the need for intensive/critical care, and the numbers of deaths in each of the countries, emphasising the lack of a cure or effective vaccine for Covid-19.

Null set

The researchers expected that compared with respondents in the comparison group, those in the two ‘treatment’ groups would either favour or disfavour the incumbent government and blame it for the pandemic.

But that’s not what the responses indicated. More than 85 per cent of respondents agreed that health was a key policy area for which their government had some responsibility.

Yet while more than half the respondents thought their government was to blame for the spread of the pandemic, those given key facts about the pandemic were no more likely to favour or disfavour the incumbent government, or blame it for the pandemic, than those in the comparison group---what is known as a ‘null’ result.

The researchers acknowledge that they recruited many fewer people than they had hoped in the UK, and the survey platform they used is biased towards young men in all countries and, in the case of India, relatively more educated men, so unlikely to be completely nationally representative.

The surveys were also carried out some time before elections were expected--years in the case of the UK and India.

“The null findings contained in this study suggest that politicians are unlikely to be punished or rewarded for their failures or successes in managing Covid-19 in the next election,” the researchers said.

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Published on October 23, 2020
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