by Seth Soderborg
Those of us who have spent the COVID-19 pandemic living in the US have learned a lot more than we expected to about just how much one’s partisan politics can affect decisions as mundane as whether to take precautions to protect one’s health in the midst of a global pandemic. The reasons for this are fairly straightforward: the US government spent the first year of the pandemic doing its best to take no action, and partisan media echoed that line—specifically targeting mask-wearing and being in crowds as activities that were not so risky. It might have felt very American.
But did things like this happen elsewhere in the world? As a researcher who studies Indonesia, which happens to be the next-largest country by population after the United States, I noticed some rather American dynamics taking shape around the pandemic. There, top political leaders consistently downplayed the pandemic, denied it was present in the country, left tough decisions to local governments and then obstructed their efforts to contain viral spread. I wondered whether this would lead to a partisan precaution-taking dynamic.
After all, Americans were washing their hands more (or not) and wearing masks more (or refusing to) depending on their partisanship. And as the outbreak became serious in Indonesia, so did the partisan politics of the pandemic. Last March the polarizing governor of Jakarta—the country’s capital and largest city—tried to implement a lockdown. At the time, the national health minister was refusing to admit that local transmission had begun. Jakarta’s request was denied for weeks, setting off a bitter—and political—fight over pandemic policy. Adding to the combustible mix was the fact that Jakarta’s governor is a consistent front-runner in polls for the next presidential election and a longtime critic of the national government.
The stage seemed set for a partisan politics of precaution-taking to develop in yet another country, just as it had in the US. Did it happen? With my co-investigator, Burhanuddin Muhtadi of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, Jakarta and funding from Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, I conducted a survey to find out.
We contacted 2,000 people by phone (it was unsafe to send enumerators door-to-door), asking them about their background, their politics, and most importantly, what they were doing to keep themselves safe from the pandemic. We then divided respondents into three groups based on the containment policies imposed in their districts of residence. We compared respondents living in places that locked down early, in April, places that locked down between mid-April and late May, and places that, by the time the survey was administered, had not experienced a lockdown.
We expected that respondents living in the early lockdown zone were most likely to report partisan sorting on health precaution-taking. Specifically, in the early lockdown zone where governors had fought against the national government to implement a lockdown, people’s decisions about health precautions would be strongly influenced by partisanship, with supporters of the national government (which was still downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic) being less likely to take precautions. We further expected some mild partisan sorting in the late lockdown zones, and very little sorting in the no-lockdown zone.
|Fig 1: Partisanship and health precaution-taking by lockdown zone. The horizontal axis of each graph divides respondents by political preference, with supporters of the incumbent president (Jokowi) contrasted to opposition supporters (Prabowo). Respondents who refused to answer are coded as no-response (NR); refusers are demographically more similar to Prabowo (opposition) supporters. There is strong overlap between support for the opposition and support for the governor of Jakarta.|
This is indeed what we found: in the early lockdown zone, opponents of the national government washed their hands more frequently, stayed home at greater rights, and tried to keep their distance from others. They were more upset than others at the health ministry’s pandemic response (though most respondents were not pleased with it), more supportive of wider lockdowns, and more supportive of their governor’s stricter policies.
In the places without lockdowns, however, partisanship did little to predict health behaviors. This was an important finding: only in situations of open partisan conflict over pandemic policy did individuals’ partisan leanings become predictive of their personal health behaviors.
One bright spot in the data was that mask-wearing was effectively universal. Masks never became politicized—they were already a common disease prevention tool prior to the pandemic, and while the central government fought hard to prevent lockdowns, it also consistently urged mask-wearing.
When explored the data further, we found that fear of infection helped explain when politics mattered. There was surprising variation among respondents about whether they feared infection with COVID-19. This variation in fear was not strongly influenced by partisanship (infection fear is very influenced by partisanship in the United States and Brazil). Perhaps unsurprisingly, fearful respondents reported high rates of precaution-taking regardless of their partisanship.
|Fig 2: Relationship between fear and staying at home, divided by political preference. In the early lockdown zone (where policy conflict was partisan and intense), un-fearful supporters of the incumbent president, whose administration downplayed the virus, were far less likely to stay home (after adjusting for demographic differences between the groups). Fear mattered far more than politics in the other zones.|
The effects of individual partisanship mattered for another group—the un-fearful. Among the respondents who said they did not fear infection, those who had voted for the incumbent president reported taking fewer precautions. Those un-fearful respondents who voted for the opposition challenger—a man closely associated with the Jakarta governor—reported taking precautions at rates similar to those of the fearful. As before, however, this relationship was strongest in the early lockdown zone where policy conflict had been intense and clearly partisan.
Our results suggested that partisanship matters for health precaution-taking in many contexts. They also suggest that partisanship does not matter automatically. Instead, a partisan conflict over pandemic policy may be necessary to activate partisanship as a driver of health behavior.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that that politics and health are more deeply intertwined than many social scientists understood. IQSS’s commitment to funding timely quantitative research made it possible for us to see that the politics of precaution-taking are both more local and more universal than was previously known. More universal in the ways that precaution-taking became divided along partisan lines in Indonesia much as they had in the United States. But more local in that those partisan divisions happened only in localities with active policy conflict.
There are two lessons for policymakers here. The first is that a consensus on pandemic mitigation strategies will probably lead to high rates of compliance with those strategies. The second is that in cases of policy conflict, partisanship can encourage people who do not fear the pandemic to nonetheless take precautions that protect themselves and others. Americans are familiar with partisanship that motivates people to take fewer precautions; Jakartans showed that partisanship can also motivate people to be more careful.
Seth Soderborg is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government. To read more about his research with Burhanuddin Muhtadi on this subject, their paper is available at Soderborg's Scholar Site: When is Staying Home Partisan? Policy Conflict and Precaution-Taking during a Pandemic.