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Social cohesion improves during coronavirus crisis

Findings from the Social Cohesion Radar 2020 show that social cohesion in Germany remained robust during the coronavirus crisis and actually increased in the first few months following the outbreak of the pandemic.  At the same time, however, the crisis has rendered differences more visible and exacerbated the problems faced by certain groups in society.

Our “Social Cohesion Radar 2020” study shows respondents in Germany reporting a stronger sense of social cohesion after the initial peak of the coronavirus pandemic than at the beginning of the year. The study draws on two representative surveys, the first of which queried 3,010 people in Germany in February and March of 2020. A follow-up survey of 1,000 people from the initial sample was then carried out in May and June of 2020 – after the contact restrictions levied during Germany’s first lockdown had been lifted. A comparison of the findings show that whereas in February, 46 percent of respondents felt cohesion in Germany to be at risk, that figure fell to 40 percent in March and even further to 36 percent in May and June. Our findings also show a decline in the perception that people in Germany do not demonstrate solidarity: while 41 percent of those surveyed felt this way in February, this figure fell to only 21 percent in May and June. Trust in the federal government also increased significantly over this period, rising from 19 percent in February to 30 percent in March and even higher to 45 percent by the third survey round.

Our findings reveal an upswing in the public’s general mood in the months up to early June.

Kai Unzicker, social cohesion expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung

“Many people were relieved that the pandemic’s initial impact appeared to have been relatively mild. Most respondents also said that they witnessed considerable solidarity and thoughtfulness on the part of others.”

The study also gives rise to optimism for the long term. A comparison of our recent findings with those of the 2017 study show social cohesion to prove stable, on the whole. Over the course of the past three years, there has been little change registered in the 36 indicators we use to measure cohesion on a scale from 0 (low) to 100 (high). In fact, the average value for the western German states even rose slightly from 60 to 62 points, while in eastern Germany (including Berlin), it remained at 58 points. “Even if many citizens are worried about social cohesion, our data show that cohesion in Germany continues to be robust overall,” noted Unzicker, summarizing the time-series results.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare existing divisions in society

At the same time, however, the survey also clearly shows that some groups in society systematically experience a lesser degree of social cohesion. With scores of less than 60 points, roughly 43 percent of respondents report experiencing social cohesion as comparatively weak. In this group, people with lower levels of formal education, low economic status and migration backgrounds are more frequently represented. This group also comprises a comparatively large number of people who live alone or are single parents.  People who experience low levels of cohesion also express a greater fear of the future.

The ongoing coronavirus crisis is exposing these divisions. “COVID-19 is like a convex lens that magnifies existing social divisions,” explains Unzicker. “For those already disadvantaged, the crisis has made things even more difficult.” While over 90 percent of participants in the panel survey stated that they were coping well with the coronavirus situation, a closer inspection shows clear discrepancies. For example, those who experienced a strong sense of cohesion prior to the crisis expressed fewer worries about their own and their family’s future when polled again at the start of the summer. In addition, they were shown to experience loneliness less often and were less likely to feel that the pandemic was tearing at the fabric of cohesion.

Weaker sense of cohesion reported among supporters of left-wing and right-wing parties

Despite the pandemic and a looming economic crisis, the level of public angst actually decreased overall in the first six months of 2020. While more than one-half of respondents stated in February that they were worried about being or becoming poor, that number fell to 47 percent by early summer. The fear of unemployment also decreased significantly, falling from 44 to 31 percent over the same period. And while most people in Germany continue to worry about illness or an economic and financial crisis, these figures also fell somewhat – from 67 to 64 percent in the case of the former and 68 to 63 percent in the latter.

Our findings also point to a surprisingly clear trend along party-political lines: supporters of Bündnis90/Die Grünen, CDU, CSU, SPD and FDP parties report a much stronger sense of cohesion than do supporters of the left-wing Die Linke party and the right-wing AfD party in particular. Those without party affiliation also report a weaker sense of cohesion.  AfD supporters are characterized most notably by low levels of overall trust, acceptance of diversity and trust in institutions. By contrast, Die Linke supporters are more likely to see deficits in social justice.

The authors of the study recommend that leaders in government, policymaking and civil social focus more on those groups in society who report experiencing less cohesion and care in their immediate social infrastructure. “The current situation is particularly threatening to the experience of single parents, migrants and people with lower education levels who are in danger of falling through the cracks of society,” says Unzicker.  “Indeed, if the conditions for childcare and homeschooling do not improve significantly in the near future – or even worsen – this will hit these groups particularly hard.” Unzicker thus argues for targeted measures designed to expand childcare and other forms of support locally.