A COVID-19 resurgence and the trust factor

Amir Cohen/Reuters
People in Tel Aviv, Israel, take part in a silent disco event wearing headphones and dancing on the pavement on June 4, 2020. Some businesses have reopened under a host of new rules, following weeks of shutdown due to COVID-19.
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As governments worldwide open up their economies and loosen restrictions on daily life, the number of new COVID-19 cases is rising.

The authorities are counting on one of two factors to keep the rise under control: trust or fear. Some democracies, whose leaders have built up a cushion of public trust, can hope with some confidence that people will accept reimposed restrictions. Authoritarian governments know citizens fear the consequences of disobedience. What about democratic leaders who don’t enjoy much public trust?

Why We Wrote This

COVID-19 is on the rise in countries that have reopened their economies – even where the virus had been eliminated. For democratic governments, trust could play a central role in making any reimposed restrictions stick.

On one end of the spectrum, New Zealand’s premier, Jacinda Ardern, won enough confidence from her handling of the first COVID wave not to have suffered much from its reappearance after the country was declared virus-free.

At the other end, the Chinese government knows that it can enforce hermetic lockdowns on whole neighborhoods of the capital, now that the virus has sprung up again only days after Beijing was declared free of COVID.

In between, in countries such as the United States and Britain, where trust has declined, a big question is looming. If the authorities feel the need to reimpose lockdowns, can they make them stick?

In countries worldwide that are reopening badly stricken economies, the number of COVID-19 cases has increased, making what some politicians have called a choice between “lives and livelihoods.”

But how successfully – how safely – they’re able to deal with new surges is likely to hinge on two other factors: trust and fear. Trust, meaning popular trust in government. And fear? In authoritarian states, fear of the consequences of not doing what you’re told; in democracies, fear of the virus itself.

Those countries relying on a strong bond of trust, or on pure fear of the authorities, appear best placed to implement the test tracking, physical distancing and mask-wearing, and new restrictions needed to forestall a new outbreak. Two examples of very different nations that had declared themselves virus-free but where new cases have appeared: authoritarian China and the island democracy of New Zealand.

Why We Wrote This

COVID-19 is on the rise in countries that have reopened their economies – even where the virus had been eliminated. For democratic governments, trust could play a central role in making any reimposed restrictions stick.

The picture is murkier for other countries, including a number hit hard by COVID-19: Britain, for instance, or some areas of the United States.

Even in countries that turned back or largely escaped a first COVID outbreak, the virus still poses a threat. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said last week that “countries are understandably eager to open up. ... But the virus is still spreading fast.”

Honesty is the best policy

Aside from New Zealand and China, other countries that controlled earlier COVID outbreaks well and have been reopening – like South Korea, Israel, and Portugal – have seen an uptick in new COVID cases in recent days.

Their governments’ hope is that the danger can be contained through contact-tracing, testing, and a reemphasis on health precautions. The stock of public trust they built up through their initial response might also stand them in good stead if a reimposition of wider restrictions proves necessary.

That certainly seems likely in New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won international plaudits for her early, effective response to the pandemic. She imposed a lockdown in March, when barely 200 cases of COVID-19 had been detected. By the time she declared the economy reopened this month, there had been only around 1,100 cases, and 22 lives lost.

But one aspect of the economic reopening was reopening New Zealand’s borders. In recent days, due to lapses and loopholes in the system of quarantine, testing, and tracking, COVID cases reappeared. Her response drew on the same strengths that earned her government-wide support in the shutdown. She was clear and transparent, not just about what went wrong, but in her frustration. She closed the loopholes and made sure precautions would be followed to the letter. So far, there’s been no sign of significant popular impatience over the lapses, almost certainly because Ms. Ardern could rely on the trust amassed since the initial outbreak.

In China, where the COVID response has relied on the tools of authoritarian control, a new outbreak has hit the capital, Beijing, days after the city was declared virus-free. Individual apartment blocks and whole neighborhoods have been placed under varying degrees of lockdown. Thousands of people in affected areas have been directed to testing sites. While the authorities are hoping these measures prevent any wider spread, there is little doubt they will – and can – move to wider lockdowns if necessary.

Will people do what they are told?

For a number of other countries with high numbers of COVID cases, however – democracies that lack both China’s tools for social control and a New Zealand-like “trust cushion” – the next few months could be challenging.

In the United States, the picture is complex. There’s little trust in the federal government’s response to the pandemic. President Donald Trump has played down its significance, even as infection rates in a number of states keep rising. But he has left the main response to state and local governments. Popular support for them varies. It’s a commodity that, like much else in the U.S., has been overshadowed by partisan divisions and the approach of elections in November. This could give greater weight to the other factor: individuals’ fear of the effects of the virus.

Yet in countries where the main responsibility lies with national government, the picture is clearer, and potentially worrying.

Britain is a prime example. The initial government response was halting and unevenly effective. Though case numbers have now been coming down, there have been more than 300,000 confirmed. More than 40,000 people have died – about twice as many as would have died if the government had locked down the country just a week earlier, according to one British health expert earlier this month.

The overall response has dealt a serious knock to trust in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.

Now, new public-health guidelines have been announced with the aim of preventing any large-scale COVID surge as the economy reopens in the coming days, and there must be some question whether they’ll be fully followed.

Yet the real question will be what happens if governments feel the need to reimpose a full-scale lockdown. In democracies at least, could that be done – could it work – without a bedrock of popular trust?

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