There is a growing global concern about the health of democracies (Rubin, 2022). Although support for civil liberties had weakened prior to COVID-19 – the pandemic and the public health responses it elicited could possibly accelerate a trend towards autocracy. Anticipating this threat, during the first few months of the pandemic our team conducted in-depth survey experiments across several Western democratic countries to assess whether providing information on stringent measures used to contain the virus in East Asian countries (i.e., China and South Korea) would affect citizens’ views regarding their willingness to curtail their own civil liberties.
We find that following an information treatment regarding the aggressive movement restrictions and privacy infringements taken by China and South Korea, respectively, as well as the potential for persistence of such policies, treated subjects: (i) displayed greater concerns over the erosion of civil liberties and the abuse of collected information; (ii) became less willing to give up the general rights and freedom of both self and others; and (iii) expressed higher reluctance to adopt policies that affected rights to movement and, to an even greater degree, privacy. However, we cannot reject the null of no effect of the treatment on views about sacrificing democratic rights and institutions more broadly. Our complementary longitudinal study demonstrated that respondents who lived in areas heavily affected by the pandemic were indeed more willing to sacrifice democratic procedures in the Spring of 2020 (Alsan et al., 2020b), though this willingness abated over time. These two findings – that support for democratic processes was unaffected by information regarding infringements on civil liberties, yet declined with increased exposure to health risks – suggest that the start of the COVID-19 crisis was a particularly vulnerable time for democracies.