COVID-19 communication varies in Europe

University of Gothenburg

Our responsibility as individuals is the main focus when authorities communicate about COVID-19 to the general public. However, a new study at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg finds crucial differences in four European countries. In Italy and Spain, the spread of the virus is described as a battle that must be fought together, while Germany is the only country questioning how the different restrictions might affect the democracy.

In the study Communicating about COVID-19 in four European countries: Similarities and differences in national discourses in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden, an international research team has been comparing how the Coronavirus pandemic has been communicated to the public in Italy, Germany, Spain and Sweden, this by studying talks to the nation given by political and constitutional leaders of the four European countries during the month of March 2020.

The four countries have different strategies for dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic. Early on Italy and Spain introduced a strict so-called “lockdown”, while countries like Germany and to an even greater extent Sweden, have chosen a less restrictive path.

“In all four countries we see that the individual is highlighted both as the problem as well as the solution to the Coronavirus pandemic. It is therefore up to the individual who is expected to help the country through the crisis by changing patterns of movement and behaviour,” says Annelie Sjölander-Lindqvist, researcher at the Gothenburg Research Institute at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg, who has led the study.

In all four countries we see that the individual is highlighted both as the problem as well as the solution to the Coronavirus pandemic

Image
Annelie Sjölander-Lindqvist

Annelie Sjölander-Lindqvist.

Photo: Hillevi Nagel

Photo: Hillevi Nagel

However, there are clear differences in the rhetoric:

“In Spain and Italy, the speeches to the nation are very much based on the fact that together we have to fight our way through this “battle” and that it will strengthen us as a nation. We did not find this kind of expressions in the similar speeches in Sweden.”

One explanation may be that there is a higher level of trust in authorities in Sweden, which means that this type of symbol-laden rhetoric to get citizens to follow various restrictions is not seen as necessary.

Only in Germany the question of how the different restrictions might have an adverse effect on the democratic rights was discussed. It was chancellor Angela Merkel who brought up the subject in her talk to the nation.

“We find it interesting that chancellor Angela Merkel is the only one who states that this is actually a threat to democracy, in that the individual’s freedom to move freely, both within the country, but also across national borders, has become so clearly restricted, says Annelie Sjölander-Lindqvist.

“It is worth thinking about is how easy and fast it has been to restrict democratic rights.”

Reference: Sjölander-Lindqvist, Annelie et al. “Communicating about COVID-19 in four European countries: Similarities and differences in national discourses in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Sweden” Frontiers in Communication. DOI: 10.3389/fcomm.2020.593325

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