Trust matters in the fight against the pandemic
07 Oct 2021
Among the various preventive measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing are commonly adopted by countries around the world. However, while making these and similar precautions, some countries appear to perform better than others in containing the transmission of the virus and the mortality rate.
According to Professor Alistair Cole, Head of the Department of Government and International Studies (GIS), while factors including the severity of the outbreak, the mode of governance, geographical location and culture weigh heavily on how well a country deals with the virus, trust also plays an important role.
Interactions between different levels of trust
In the research paper Trust, Transparency and Transnational lessons from Covid 19, Professor Cole and his colleague Dr Dionysios Stivas investigated whether the pandemic represents a crisis of trust and whether transparency provides a solution for re-building trust.
The researchers looked at China including Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the UK, and found that trust in the government is not the only trust issue that matters in times of a pandemic. "A society’s response to the pandemic depend on the levels of trust – trust in civil society, trust in health professionals and trust in the government – and the interactions between these variables," says Professor Cole.
He points out that although the Hong Kong SAR Government has been very transparent in providing data about its handling of the virus, it has enjoyed relatively low levels of public trust. Nonetheless, the city is widely considered as having been effective in containing the virus in terms of the numbers of infections, deaths and the necessity of introducing restrictive measures. Professor Cole attributes Hong Kong's successful approach to the high level of trust in civil society and interpersonal trust among its citizens.
"It's a slightly paradoxical situation where the trust in the government is not very high, but people are behaving in a way that is cooperative towards the government's measures to curb the spread of the virus. Hong Kong society has shown itself to be disciplined and coherent," he says, quoting the example of how HongKongers have swiftly adopted mask-wearing in public to illustrate their collective reaction to COVID-19. "It's not just a question of whether you trust the government, but whether you trust your fellow citizens to respect the rules and operate in the collective social interest."
This capacity of the community has kept Hong Kong largely unaffected by the pandemic, Professor Cole and his co-author wrote. They also pointed out that a high level of trust in health professionals is found across the places cited in the research, making it a key determinant of how well these places contain COVID-19.
Transnational lessons in public governance
While trust is essential for controlling the virus in an immediate sense, transparency and openness of information is necessary for a longer-term policy response that is resilient and sustainable. The research suggested that maintaining transparency of administrative data is the best way to influence behaviour during a pandemic and restore trust. The messages coming from the top need to be clear and consistent.
"In the UK, the messages from the government in relation to the severity of COVID-19 and the necessary measures to combat the virus were mixed and unclear in the early stage of the pandemic. This led to a feeling of mistrust towards the government in its handling of the crisis," Professor Cole says. "As the pandemic goes on, the UK authorities become better at articulating what citizens need to do, and the people become more disciplined and better in understanding the challenges of the pandemic."
He recently presented his findings at the "Transnational and Transdisciplinary Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic" international symposium hosted by GIS in May. The conference brought together more than 30 speakers from around the world to share insights into the global and regional challenges caused by the pandemic.
Trust and smart city development
A member of HKBU's Smart Society Laboratory, Professor Cole is currently working on a two-year research project that explores multidisciplinary issues related to public trust and smart city development. Under the Hong Kong Smart City Blueprint 2.0, the government aims to launch more than 130 smart city initiatives to enhance and expand existing city management measures and services. The HKBU research team is investigating the questions of trust in the processes of smart government with the implementation of initiatives such as the Smart Identity Card. The study also looks into the ethical underpinnings of big data.
"What's the level of trust people have about 5G? How do citizens engage with data processing in the smart city?" Professor Cole asks. "Our project looks into the case of Hong Kong, but these questions are also applicable in other places."
He notes that although Hong Kong people are generally technologically astute, there is mistrust towards certain applications of technology, such as smart lampposts and mobile apps like LeaveHomeSafe. "Citizens see the benefits of smart technologies, but there is a lack of trust in some of the principles underpinning data collection, particularly about data confidentiality, access and use," he says. With public acceptability being a cornerstone of effective policy, the future of a smart city relies on strengthening the ties among citizens, providers and public authorities.