A family wear face masks amid lockdown in Rome. EPA/Angelo Carconi

Coronavirus: US and UK governments losing public trust

By the beginning of April 2020, a large proportion of the world’s population was living in some level of isolation as their governments took measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some countries imposed tight restrictions at an early stage whereas others waited.

Findings from a survey taken at the time suggest that early action was the way to go for governments seeking public support. The public preferred their governments to take action more quickly in the UK and the US – two countries facing criticism for their slowness to act.

People in these two countries were also less trusting of their governments than in Germany and Italy. One reason behind this could be that politicians in both Germany and Italy acted more decisively compared to their two counterparts, almost immediately imposing lockdown measures. Italy was particularly notable for a high level of trust in the government, despite also suffering a high number of deaths.

We asked 2,006 people across four different countries to complete an online survey – 603 from the UK, 504 from the US, 427 from Germany and 472 from Italy. Each answered questions on their attitudes towards the measures taken to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

We found that respondents in the US were significantly less trusting of their government during this crisis than people in the other countries. When asked to rate how much of the time they trusted their government on a four-point scale, with 0 being “just about never” and 3 being “just about always”, US respondents came out with an average score of just 0.85. German respondents reported quite a lot of trust, at 1.65, which brings them closer to trusting their government “some” or “most of the time”. In the UK, the trust level was 1.1 and in Italy 1.28.

The significantly different death rates, with Germany standing out with a small number of deaths per capita, in combination with Germany’s and Italy’s earlier responses to the pandemic could partly explain these differences.

Figure 1. How much of the time do you think you can trust your government? Respondents answered on a 4-point scale with alternatives: 0 = Just about never, 1 = Some of the time, 2 = Most of the time, 3 = Just about always. The same scales were also used for trust in media. For clarity, we visualise the scale as going from Never to Often.

There was a similar pattern in media trust, with German respondents having a higher trust (1.49) compared to respondents from the other countries (an average of 1.14).

Faster action needed

When asked what politicians in their country should have done differently, the most common response was to say they should have acted faster. Around three in four answers spoke to this point. This view was particularly prevalent in the UK, where 81% of respondents mentioned it, and in the US, where 74% mentioned it. In Germany, 69% brought it up, and in Italy, where very strict lockdown conditions were introduced, the least number of people (although still 57%) raised the issue.

Figure 2. Respondents freely expressed what they thought politicians should have done differently, and their text responses were then quantified and analysed using algorithms for text analysis. These were the five most mentioned categories. This method ensured that all perspectives were taken into consideration.

There was also a strong sense that politicians should have “isolated more”, such as by closing down societal functions, restricting social life and keeping elderly and other risk groups isolated. However, views on this varied between countries. A significant seven out of ten people in the UK thought more isolation would have been preferable but only one in three Germans felt the same. This may also be because German politicians imposed more radical measures at an early stage, whereas UK and US governments have been criticised for reacting late and changing their strategies. However, all in all many respondents from all four countries wanted more isolation.

In the UK and US, the view that politicians should have provided more medical resources (such as hospital beds, personal protective and diagnostic equipment) was twice as common as in Germany and Italy.

Supporting lockdowns

Participants were also asked: “How should the leaders of the world tackle the current situation?”. In response they could either say “open up and only isolate risk groups to save economy and jobs” or “isolate and lock down the whole country as long as needed to reduce the spread of the virus”.

An overwhelming majority (83%) chose isolating and locking down over the option to think more about the economy. However there was some variation between countries. While 22% of German respondents wanted to open up, only 12% of UK respondents did. In the US, 17% of respondents wanted to open up and in Italy, only 16% did.

As governments decide how to approach the next phase of this crisis, it is clear that their citizens want priority to be given to health issues over economic concerns, which might conflict with politicians’ will to alleviate rising unemployment rates. And, in the longer term future, some leaders may have some difficult questions to answer about why they didn’t take action sooner.

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