The polarised debate around COVID-19 is not about vaccines but about much broader societal conflicts, according to the European Narratives Observatory NODES
A woman receives a dose of vaccine for COVID-19 at a pharmacy in Ajaccio, on October 5, 2023. (Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP)

The polarised debate around COVID-19 is not about vaccines but about much broader societal conflicts, according to the European Narratives Observatory NODES

The pandemic served as catalyst for tensions about corporate influence, environmental protection or the struggle between individual rights and governmental authority. 

On Friday, December 15, NODES researchers and scientists presented the initial results from their research on COVID-19 narratives. Bridging the COVID-19 Narratives in Public Discourse is the second case study of the NODES series The Narratives that Shape our World, which explores pivotal subjects essential for our democracies. 

The COVID pandemic has significantly altered the world, compelling us to fundamentally reassess many issues. In tandem with this transformation, the anti-vaccination movement that had already been observed started to spread. In many ways, this is part of a larger phenomenon of ‘anti-movement’ that can be observed when monitoring debates about climate change, migration, and gender issues, among others. 

 However, a careful analysis of these narratives suggests that it was never really about vaccines.  

The public discourse surrounding COVID-19 and preventative measures has served as a catalyst for broader societal conflicts, such as the tension between human interests and corporate influence, the balance between environmental protections and technological development, the struggle between individual rights and governmental authority, and the delicate equilibrium between individual freedom and collective solidarity.   

NODES researchers analysed a broad corpus of data (newspaper articles, blog posts, as well as social media posts) in four European languages (English, French, Spanish and Polish). Adopting a different approach based on narratology and social psychology of narratives, they created a detailed chart outlining the basic motives, which were clustered into six dominant narratives associated with underlying values. 

Narratives — or simply the stories we share, are the primary tool by which we communicate, assimilate, and store information. They unite and divide us, creating and sustaining ‘narrative communities’. In the case of COVID-19, the dominant narratives are primarily linked to issues around trust and solidarity.   

Professor Andrzej Nowak, Chief Narrative Scientist at Re-Imagine Europa and Lead Researcher of NODES, highlighted that “even if COVID-19 is no longer at the centre of the public debate, understanding those narratives can help us predict the ones which will spread on epidemics and other disasters, as the narrative scheme we have discovered is likely to be repeated in similar situations in the future.” 

Yearning for stabilisation 

This narrative treats COVID-19 as a serious threat, however it focuses on critique of governments, institutions, elites, or big companies for their ineffectiveness, sluggishness, or greed. 

Values: security, stabilisation, distrust in (current) government 

Keywords: chaos, mess, lack of control, collapse, crisis, irresponsibility, confusion 

Top-down stabilisation 

This narrative treats COVID-19 as a serious threat. Institutions are perceived as a shield that can protect society against both the virus itself and the chaos that may result from the pandemic. 

Values: order, security, stabilisation, trust in government 

Keywords: calm, control, order, rules, responsibility, relief, package, programme 

Bottom-up solidarity 

This narrative treats COVID-19 as a serious threat and a major challenge to our humanity and empathy. Different forms of bottom-up solidarity and responsible, altruistic behaviour are presented as effective means of mitigating the crisis, while egoism and carelessness are a major threat to society. 

Values: solidarity, empathy, cooperation, responsibility 

Keywords: solidarity, together, hand-in-hand, responsibility, help 

We need to resist the COVID dystopia 

This narrative does not consider COVID-19 to be a serious threat and contends that the pandemic is portrayed as either non-existent or significantly embellished.  It alleges that the pandemic is used to justify the imposition of restrictions on individual freedoms, fostering a perceived dominance of so-called ‘experts’ and large corporations. In some more radical versions of this narrative, preventive measures, such as vaccines, may be considered extremely harmful. 

Values: individual freedom, entrepreneurship 

Keywords: utopia, totalitarian, madness, agenda 

Raw explanation 

This narrative neglects the aspect of human agency. It focuses predominantly on elucidating the virus’s operational mechanisms — be they physical, biological, or chemical — and outlining potential effective preventive measures without providing specific recommendations or establishing guidelines. Furthermore, it presents the dynamic aspects of the current situation, such as the fluctuating numbers of casualties. 

This narrative interweaves evidence-based information with unverified theories and fake news. The challenge lies in discerning these elements at the narrative pattern level, making it difficult to distinguish between substantiated facts and speculative or false content.  

Keywords: mechanism, number 

The world has changed 

This narrative portrays the pandemic as a profound disruption that has brought about significant and dramatic changes to our world. Among these changes, some, such as the shift to remote learning, working from home, and a decrease in nonessential travel, are viewed as potential positive outcomes.   

Contrary to the previous narrative, these changes are not ‘fluctuations’ but permanent ‘megatrends’. 

Keywords: change, opportunity, never be the same 


NODES (Narratives Observatory combatting Disinformation in Europe Systemically) is a research pilot-project co-funded by the European Commission, in response to the pressing challenge of understanding the powerful narratives that shape citizens’ minds and impact individual and social behaviours. 

The NODES project is led by the European think tank Re-Imagine Europa, co-funded by the European Commission, and includes top level institutions and organisations such as Agence France-Presse (AFP), the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), PlusValue, Sotrender, Science Feedback and Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia