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AARHUS, Denmark — In an already divided nation, a new study finds COVID-19 is making a poor political situation even worse. Researchers conducting an international survey reveal the burden the coronavirus pandemic is placing on society is driving more people act violently at protests as well as creating even more antigovernment sentiment worldwide.

A team from the Peace Research Institute in Norway and the University of Aarhus polled 6,000 adults from the United States, Denmark, Italy, and Hungary during the pandemic. Researchers asked each person how COVID was affecting their health, financial well-being, relationships, and rights in society.

“The pandemic has disrupted our normal way of living, generating frustrations, unprecedented social exclusion, and a range of other concerns,” says Henrikas Bartusevičius Olso’s Peace Research Institute Oslo in a media release. “Our investigations show that the psychological toll of living through a pandemic also stoked antigovernment and antisystemic attitudes that led to political violence in a number of countries.”

People are fed up with COVID restrictions

Along with gauging how COVID is burdening the public’s daily lives, the team also asked participants to reveal how dissatisfied they are with their respective governments and if the frustration to causing them to attend protests or act violently.

Results reveal a strong connection between a higher psychological burden due to COVID-19 and people displaying more antigovernment sentiment and a tendency towards violence for political causes. To the researchers’ surprise, the survey did not find a link between COVID burden and motivation to attend peaceful demonstrations.

“We were also surprised to find that COVID-19 burden does not need additional triggers to motivate political violence,” Bartusevičius adds. “It is seemingly enough on its own.”

Study authors describe COVID burden as the total sum of the psychological toll the pandemic is taking on society over the last two years. Each person’s burden shows in their stress reaction to government’s actions during the crisis, including lockdowns, mask mandates, and social distancing orders.

In the United States specifically, the team finds a strong link between a higher COVID burden and participants engaging in violent acts during Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests.

“This is the first time in the modern era that highly individualized Western democracies have faced a major pandemic,” explains co-author Michael Bang Peterson from Aarhus University. “Our research presents one of the first pieces of evidence on the disruptive potential of pandemics and associated lockdowns.”

Repairing trust in government post-COVID

As for what’s causing the uptick in civil unrest during the pandemic, researchers say there are a number of possible reasons. Study authors suspect lockdowns and government restrictions have unequally impacted certain social groups more than others. This creates the perception that government is creating more injustice in society, leading people to become angry and turn away from their leaders.

Additionally, researchers find that COVID-19 restrictions add to social exclusion and marginalization as government orders make normal social activities disappear. All of this, they say, fuels public distrust in government and motivates the most burdened people to engage in political violence.

Researchers conclude that in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, government officials not only have to address public health concerns, but also start to repair the broken relationship between the public and the politicians.

The findings appear in the journal Psychological Science.

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