In their research, Hayley Munir and Syed Rashid Munir address the question of why certain countries have experienced greater success in their COVID-19 vaccine rollouts compared to others. As they assert, “civil liberties—especially long histories of protections for civil liberties—complicate the government’s job in two ways regarding vaccine rollouts.” Some factors influencing the vaccine rollout can be related to very deep elements of the social tissue. For instance, as the authors claim, “Groups with conservative religious values in developed democracies had a slower rate of vaccination in comparison with residents of the same area who did not share the conservative ideas.”
The interview is based on the PSR article Perceiving Freedom: Civil Liberties and COVID-19 Vaccinations – Hayley Munir, Syed Rashid Munir, 2023 (sagepub.com)
PSR: Your theory posits that nations with greater civil liberties will experience lower COVID-19 vaccination rates. Could you elaborate on your findings?
Hayley Munir, Syed Rashid Munir: Our hypothesis builds on the observation that economically developed and consolidated democracies had a harder time achieving high vaccination in comparison with less economically developed, authoritarian states. All of the literature on development, regime type, and institutional characteristics leads to the expectation that the former category of states should have been more successful, and yet we did not observe this. To explain this, we suggest that civil liberties – especially long histories of protections for civil liberties – complicate the government’s job in two ways regarding vaccine rollouts. First, they imbibe within the citizenry a sense of freedom from government overreach, which allows them to resist directives they perceive to be insufficiently inclusive or transparent. Second, institutional regard for civil liberties also ties the governments’ hands: they cannot simply force their citizens to follow their orders. These two mechanisms combine together to produce the result.
Have datasets you analysed confirmed this hypothesis? If so, to what extent?
Yes, we have seen promising empirical evidence so far, even though the data is fairly limited with regard to its time coverage. We set a cut-off date of November 2021 and measured vaccination rates from the first availability of COVID-19 vaccines until the cutoff. Improvements in technology and data collection allow for such analysis, and we are currently working on extending our idea and findings since more data has become available now.
We suggest that civil liberties – especially long histories of protections for civil liberties – complicate the government’s job in two ways regarding vaccine rollouts.
What are the additional variables that can influence the proportion of a population that is vaccinated?
One factor that we could not satisfactorily include in our analysis is the role of misinformation around government policy in general and COVID-19 vaccines in particular. Access to the internet could be one reasonable proxy, but it would require abstractions in the theory that we did not think were suitable. Prevalence of alternative sources of media – somewhat tied to internet access – could be a more definitive way to capture this effect, but empirical data in this regard is still quite new. Beyond that, there might be other group-level dynamics and socio-cultural factors at play; for instance, we observed that groups with conservative religious values in developed democracies had a slower rate of vaccination in comparison with residents of the same area who did not share the conservative ideas. We expect this pattern to be present in less-developed countries, too.
What about the countries with only a slight difference in levels of civil liberties? For instance: the UK vs Poland. The average number of vaccinated people is significantly much higher in the UK (93%), compared to Poland (62% – the first dose). The same applies to civil liberties (UK 93/100, Poland 81/100, according to Freedom House). What other variables could have influenced such a result?
We know that the UK government was pretty forceful in its demand for citizens to be vaccinated, so directed government campaigns could be one explanation. It is entirely possible that the Polish government was also vocal in its efforts, but such efforts are not easily observable due to a language barrier. Furthermore, it could be that social elites other than politicians (religious leaders, for instance) could play a role in vaccine uptake. This effect could be expected to be more pronounced in more conservative countries, such as Poland.
Would there be any policy implications that follow from your analyses?
One major implication is that civil liberties – a most cherished feature of democracies – can become a hurdle in the way of policy efficacy in crisis situations. This does not mean that we ought to do away with civil liberties in such extenuating circumstances, but only that they can be an additional constraint on state policy. Beyond just COVID, other crises like natural disasters also require governments to respond quickly and effectively, but we typically do not see opposition regarding government efforts to provide welfare. With pandemics in the current day and age, however, we have seen that politics can become a causal factor towards predicting citizen response. For the future, governments ought to keep this hurdle in mind.
We observed that groups with conservative religious values in developed democracies had a slower rate of vaccination in comparison with residents of the same area who did not share the conservative ideas.
What are the key contributions your paper brings to the field?
We started out trying to address two specific grievances. First, Political Scientists were not addressing the effect of the pandemic towards their theories. Some of this was related to timing and data availability, but reasonable theoretical conjectures could still have been made. This had the expected result of explanations regarding political behavior being sidelined in discussions regarding the pandemic. Second, we wanted to show how state leaders, health officials, and media were missing the `political’ side of things. In other words, while there was wide-ranging consensus about the need for safety and vaccinations, efforts to promote the same were being met with resistance. Typical explanations centred around health infrastructure, economic development, literacy rate, etc. failed to account for this behavioral anomaly, and we think that political explanations have a central role here.
Questions and production
Dr Eliza Kania, PSR/Brunel University London