New data has shown that trust in government, in other people and in each other is more effective at predicting cooperation than trust in science.
What is the reason why some countries have done better with handling the pandemic? There is increasing evidence that trust in government and our fellow citizens is a key predictor of a country’s ability to work together and reduce the spread the virus.
Recent studies in the Lancet, an international medical journal, found that trust in government and citizens was a key predictor of a country’s ability to resist the spread of infection. A host of other characteristics of societies, which many may consider crucial factors such as health care capacity, did not seem to play any role in reducing the spread of Covid.
“We found no link between Covid outcomes with democracy, populism and government effectiveness, universal healthcare, pandemic preparedness metrics and economic inequality or trust-in-science,” Thomas Bollyky (a senior fellow for global affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations) told The Washington Post.
This is a remarkable finding that helps to explain why the U.S., a wealthy democracy with excellent health care and better preparation for a catastrophic bio-event, has done so poorly in controlling spread and minimizing deaths. We’ve seen it in many horrifying details: Having the most advanced technology like world-class vaccines doesn’t mean much if people don’t trust the institutions that recommend them. According to the Post, trust in the U.S. is close to historic lows following decades of decline. It is also relatively low when compared with other high-income countries.
Bollyky’s last point — trusting science — is something liberals should pay attention to. When we think about lessons learned and possible strategies to improve cooperation in fighting the pandemic, insisting that everyone “believe the science” will not work is an impossibility. We don’t believe each other, which is the bigger problem.
The Post’s report on the Lancet study found that trust in government and others is strongly associated with mobility declines, i.e. social distancing, and lower vaccination rates. The key to reducing the risk of spreading the virus to other countries has been a strong public response to public health officials’ guidance. This includes issues such as getting jabbed, how to limit exposure and masking up. Bollyky claims that Vietnam’s pandemic response has outperformed that of other richer, better-equipped countries because of its high trust in government. (Let’s not forget that high levels of trust can mask real fear of an autocratic government. The study estimates that 40 percent less people could have been infected if everyone had the same high level of trust in each other as Danes.
This isn’t a random study. Experts in public health have repeatedly spoken out about the importance of trusting institutions during the pandemic. They also expressed concern over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention poor reputation for being a communicator. A doctor who treats patients in Bronx and a socioologist who helps international institutions administer vaccinations in developing nations explained in a December Op-Ed in The New York Times that they have been conducting surveys, focus groups, and interviews for five years and concluded that vaccine hesitancy is due to a breakdown in the social contract. They wrote that they have found that vaccine-rejecting people are not less scientifically literate and less well-informed than their counterparts. “Instead, hesitancy is a transformation in our core beliefs about the responsibilities we owe each other.” They attributed a lot of that transformation to a global trend for governments to cut social services and delegate them to private sector. This makes them less accessible and more suspicious of institutions.
Austerity policies are more than just denying vulnerable people access to services. They also reduce people’s sense of community, solidarity, and citizenship.
As I have previously discussed, when you look at phenomena such as the right’s obsession with Covid cures like “ivermectin” — which has never been shown to be an effective treatment of Covid — you will see that people’s exposure is tied down in their trust in authorities. Because they are not able to comprehend scientific studies, few people will read them and make judgments about their merits. Instead, experts and authority figures interpret and recommend actions based upon the findings of studies.
The main problem with the crowds who were attracted to ivermectin was not hostility towards science per se, but hostility toward the government and doubt of the consensus of medical professionals. This is evident in the fact that many people searched for apparently scientific guidance from outsider experts, often through political in-groups. Many ivermectin misinformations have been disguised in pseudoscience and retracted scientific articles. These articles were even recommended by rogue doctors, who often have corrupt financial incentives, fringe beliefs, and no relevant specialty, but are physicians. Although it’s a good idea to teach people the difference between legitimate science and junk science is a common problem, many people who shun Covid guidance are not interested in hearing what the mainstream authority has to say. A nihilistic and increasingly powerful right-wing media environment is also exacerbating this tendency.
This column is too long to address the trust crisis. It has enormous implications for all aspects of our lives, including politics and violence. Here are some suggestions: The Lancet study recommends “greater investment” in risk communication and community engagement strategies. The Times report also suggests universal programs similar to the ones we had during the Great Society. This would help to reaffirm public trust in government, combat inequality and communicate with the public. These aren’t quick fixes but they’re essential ones.