NSM Focus | Opinion: Public opinion and industry lobbies have ‘major impact’ in corona times

Date of news: 25 June 2020

Some people feel safer thanks to the government’s corona measures, while others experience the rules as a form of suppression. Does the public still have a say in corona times? Absolutely, says Kristof Jacobs, associate professor of Empirical Political Science. Jacobs studies contemporary challenges to democracy and how people respond to these challenges. “Public opinion played a role right from the earliest stages of the corona crisis,” he says.

Impact on Prime Minister Rutte

Jacobs is in no doubt: the Rutte government is strongly influenced by public opinion. “There is ‘smoking gun’ evidence that the public has an influence on government policy. The government monitors opinion polls and follows social media channels where anybody can express an opinion,” Jacobs explains. “We saw the impact of this early on in the crisis when the decision was made to shut down the schools. The Outbreak Management Team did not think it was necessary, but the public made it clear they thought the schools should be closed. This had a clear influence on the resulting policy measures, which were stricter than planned thanks to the public outcry, although of course the fact that these measures wouldn’t exacerbate the pandemic played a role.”

But public opinion has not only influenced the measures taken to control the coronavirus; recently the lockdown measures started to be relaxed, in some cases more quickly than planned. For example, hairdressing salons were one of the first sectors that were allowed to resume business, which was the result of a strong industry lobby. But the researcher says that other factors played a role too. “Take the aviation sector; despite the fact that it is practically impossible to stick to the 1.5-metre rule in an aircraft, airlines will soon be flying again anyway. It is clear that there is more involved here than only scientific research. Still, if it proves that air travel leads to new outbreaks, they may have to shut everything down again.”

The fundamental right to demonstrate

The voice of the public plays an important role at another level too; see how the Black Lives Matter protests continue, despite strong criticism of a demonstration that was held in Amsterdam, where the 1.5-metre rule soon became impossible to maintain due to the large crowds. Mayor Femke Halsema came under fire and apologised, but she also said she did not want to interfere with the fundamental right to demonstrate. Administrators have also allowed the public to demonstrate in other cities, and in some cases they have even offered suggestions to help make the demonstrations corona proof.

“As far as I am concerned, it is logical that such demonstrations should be allowed to go ahead,” says Jacobs. “Demonstrating is a fundamental right. That right is always weighed against other issues such as public order and public health, but in a democracy, the right to demonstrate carries much weight. This was also seen in America, where people held anti-lockdown demonstrations soon after the outbreak started. You can’t just cast aside the right to demonstrate, although that now means demonstrating in a new way: with a little creativity, you can demonstrate and protect public health at the same time.”