New forms of participation to overcome the crisis

Governments around the world are struggling to prevent deaths and bankruptcies. For a well-established democracy like Switzerland, crisis management based on the principle of trial and error is unusual and creates great uncertainty. So, it is time for a communication strategy that goes beyond dialogue with established players. When people feel unheard, a dangerous dynamic of polarization starts.

A few weeks ago, the Swiss Parliament Council decided to impose fines for not wearing a mask, and in several cantons, teachers who refused to wear masks were barred from teaching. At the same time, minimum quality requirements and controls for the sale of masks are still lacking. And recently a leading MP, Ruth Humbel from the Christian Democractic Party CVP and President of the Health Commission, formulated the idea that those who received a Covid-vaccine and hold an immunity card should enjoy certain benefits such as for example, access to a football stadium or a club. Both of these facts show that there is a widespread lack of sensitivity to the dynamics of social crises in politics.


One-way communication instead of controversial discussions

What channels exist today for a careful and broad discussion of the important ethical and fundamental legal questions concerning Corona? The Swiss government uses press conferences for what is essentially one-way communication: only media representatives can ask questions. And although the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) emphasizes on its website that the authorities’ social media channels are used for dialogue, it blocked numerous users at the beginning of November.

The task force, the cantons and established players maintain an exchange. However, for many interest groups and individuals, there is little opportunity to participate in the discussion and development of solutions. As a result, many of the population's concerns and fears are not visible to the government and are not taken into account in the planning or analysis of measures. One example is the issue of domestic violence: If experts and those affected had been involved in a dialogue, quarantine rules would never have been issued in their absolute form, but would have been equipped with certain safety valves.


Particularly delicate: the vaccination issue

The combination of emergency approval regulations, high profits, and diminished liability for vaccine manufacturers is fuels those who believe Corona to be an elite conspiracy. The lack of critical discussion in the media fuels the narrative of the "fake news" and setting all dissenters aside as "Covidiots” further encourages this radicalization. All this creates fertile ground for anti-democratic ideas.

In the so-called “alternative” media, a rapidly growing community of people who feel neither heard nor seen has emerged since March. The mother who sees wearing a mask as a health hazard for her child; the yoga teacher who demands a state campaign for healthy nutrition; the physician who demands more transparency about the reliability and effect of PCR tests and Covid statistics; or the local right wing politician who always knew that the elites could not be trusted.

Not all of these critics have extremist political views, but there is a lot of potential for radicalization against democracy. In search of "the truth" they are united in the common fight against the "Corona dictatorship". Breaking taboos and crossing borders are part of this search. In mid-November, the well-known Swiss journalist Daniela Schwegler posted a picture in which the slogan "Arbeit macht frei", meaning “Work makes you free" a phrase that figured above the entrance to Nazi concentration camps, was altered to read "Impfen macht frei" ("Vaccination makes you free"). These extreme messages and symbols have a cross-border effect as drivers of a basic attitude hostile to elites and the government.


Greater involvement of the civilian population

This dynamic of radicalization is systematically underestimated, since a large part of the surveys on the population’s views are conducted via media portals that are not used by the people who fundamentally reject corona measures. In order to counteract polarization, the way the federal government and the cantons manage crises urgently needs to be changed. We need to focus on interactive communication instead of one-way communication citizens need to be involved, so that there is room for nuances. There are many ways to do this, round tables can be established at the municipal level, and long-term focus groups can be set up at the national level. Dealing with the corona crisis has showed us the limits of administrative strategies and the traditional political process. Let us use the current situation to develop new models of participation.

After all, we can only overcome the crisis if the population is consistently involved as part of the solution.