Antidote to coronavirus fears: Trust in leaders

The global outbreak puts a useful spotlight on governments that have built up credibility, transparency, and other traits of trustworthy leadership.

A woman wearing a mask in precaution of the coronavirus prays at the Kwan Im Hood Cho Temple in Singapore Feb. 19.

In South Korea, the first democracy to cope with a massive outbreak of the coronavirus, President Moon Jae-in is scrambling to be seen as a trusted leader against harsh public criticism of his response. “This is an unusual emergency situation,” Mr. Moon had to explain Monday. “Instead of limiting our imagination with regard to policy, we have to make bold decisions and implement them quickly.”

In Singapore, by contrast, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has largely kept the trust of citizens in his highly centralized island state. The government, for example, helped prevent panic on social media by setting up its own WeChat platform to provide accurate information. By being transparent and instructive, it maintained credibility.

Meanwhile in China, health officials admitted Friday they had created mistrust by constantly altering the “criteria” for what is a “confirmed case” of the virus. The confession may have been an attempt to regain trust and, with it, public cooperation.

With reports of more outbreaks beyond China, leaders in many countries are desperate to keep or restore trust in order to cope with both the virus and the viral fear that has come with it. The range of responses puts a favorable spotlight on those governments that already had built up competent health systems and honest communications to meet such a challenge.

In general, examples of trusted leadership are getting harder to find, according to the latest “Trust Barometer” from communications firm Edelman.

In its latest survey of 28 countries, it found two-thirds of people do not have confidence that “our current leaders will be able to successfully address our country’s challenges.” A similar number “worry technology will make it impossible to know if what people are seeing or hearing is real.” And 57% said news media is “contaminated with untrustworthy information.”

Edelman recommends all leaders try to be ethical as they also try to be competent in solving problems. Government, for example, must reduce partisanship, address problems at the community level, and partner with the private sector. Trust “is no longer only a matter of what you do – it’s also how you do it,” the report states.

Trust in leaders and their expertise to handle a health crisis is an essential “vaccine” in controlling public fears. Governments need the traits of trust – integrity, transparency, accountability, and compassion – long before a crisis hits. Or, as China and other countries are finding, they must scramble to build up trust. As they do, fears will lessen and help end this global outbreak.

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