Munich Personal RePEc Archive

Do epidemics impose a trade-off between freedom and health? Evidence from Europe during Covid-19.

Bartolini, Stefano and Sarracino, Francesco and Slater, Giulia (2020): Do epidemics impose a trade-off between freedom and health? Evidence from Europe during Covid-19.

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The extent to which governments’ policies for the containment of Covid-19 relied on voluntary compliance or on enforced social and economic restrictions, differs substantially across countries. Why so? The answer to this question is important because economic and psychological costs of an epidemic surge with the severity of restrictions. As the risk of infections increased in recent decades, it is critical to understand what enables a society to contain epidemics with mild restrictions of citizens’ freedoms. Our answer is that trust in others and in public institutions allows for less stringent containment policies. We collected data on policy stringency, speed of decline of new contagions and mortality during the first wave of Covid-19 in Europe. After accounting for various confounding factors, we find that governments of more trustful countries introduced less stringent policies, burdening the society with lower economic and psychological costs. This did not come at the expense of public health: holding policy stringency constant, high trust countries report lower mortality, as well as lower number and faster decline of new contagions than others. We conclude that the trade-off between freedom and health during epidemics depends on a country’s trust level: the more people trust others and institutions, the more this trade-off fades. Therefore, promoting trust in others and in institutions is a critical challenge for contemporary societies.

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