We’re all in this together: Collective action and trust in the age of coronavirus

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Even as we all learn what it means to stand two meters apart from each other, tackling the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) presents a collective action problem that can only be solved by people coming together. 

High levels of collaboration between governments and citizens are essential to defeating the pandemic.  Trust in government is required for such collaboration and coordination to take place. Yet this comes at a time when trust in government and institutions has been in precipitous decline in many parts of the world. 

Governments that have been relatively successful in containing the virus have gained citizens’ trust by providing clear, accurate, and real-time information.  They have also made sound, timely decisions with demonstrable results. Downplaying the crisis or making decisions in an erratic or opaque manner undermines trust and makes it more difficult to implement necessary behavioral changes. It also makes it harder to resolve urgent policy questions that require public debate, for example around digital privacy. 

In countries that have blunted the impact of the virus thus far, technology has played a facilitating role.  This raises the question: are there more accessible, perhaps lower-tech, solutions that would do the trick in countries that have limited connectivity? One answer could be to consider the specific roles that technology has played in successful cases. For instance, if the role was to strengthen cooperation between citizens and the government, could the interventions be adapted to the country context and to the tools available?

We can look at Liberia’s experience with the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Trust in government was at a low point when the crisis hit. Top-down strategies -- such as reliance on large field hospitals for Ebola patients -- generated resentment at the community level early on. But once the national response became better coordinated with community-driven solutions, the spread of the disease began to slow. The lesson learned is that while national leadership is indispensable, it must be combined with local solutions that generate voluntary compliance, cooperation, and trust in the authorities. 

With COVID-19 being such a fast-moving pandemic, low-income countries will not be able to implement a response that prioritizes expanding ICU capacity in the timeframe required.  In addition, protracted nationwide shutdowns may not be feasible everywhere. Consequently, developing countries will need to rely even more heavily on civic responsibility and specific calls to behavioral change that include handwashing, wearing masks in public, self-quarantine, and physical distancing where possible. 

For example, efforts to broaden the availability of public hand-washing stations can be accompanied by awareness-raising campaigns that use context-appropriate outreach strategies. In Nigeria, this has meant direct text-messaging and robocalls to citizens reminding them to wash hands and stay at home. But appeals to citizens for individual action must be backed by a credible government commitment to protecting the vulnerable and providing essential services, thus maintaining solidarity, reciprocity, and social cohesion. In low-income countries, this requires assistance from the international community to mobilize resources for safety nets, cash transfers, and other initiatives that address multiple problems, such as green job creation programs. 

Sustaining citizen trust will depend on transparency and accountability in the management of funds, effective implementation of measures to slow transmission, and the efficient delivery of benefits during the crisis. Possible tactics include leveraging existing tools for targeted and transparent government-to-people (G2P) transfers, such as India’s use of biometric IDs to distribute food subsidies and pensions, or the delivery of education scholarships via mobile phone to families in Bangladesh. Some essential government services can be moved online. In Kenya, officials have been holding court sessions via Skype, thanks in part to an increase in ICT infrastructure that has been enabled by the World Bank’s Judicial Performance Improvement Project.

Now is the time for governments to boost their capabilities to track and respond to crises while incentivizing collective action and cooperation.  In sum, we see the following government approaches have gotten traction:

  • Communicate early and often. Nothing builds trust better than proactive, direct, transparent and ubiquitous government communication to citizens about the extent of the problem and solutions underway.  When citizens trust their government, they are more likely to follow government’s guidelines about spatial distancing and other coronavirus behavioral changes. 
  • Leverage local government and community interventions to demonstrate tangible improvements and reinforce credibility. Local authorities are often closer to community needs. Supporting successful locally-driven solutions, and incorporating them into the national response where appropriate, can strengthen trust in central authorities.
  • Employ context-appropriate technology.   Technology can help, but is never a silver bullet. Sometimes, simple technological solutions (e.g. a spreadsheet) adapted to the context can have a critically important value added. A combination of online and offline methods works best to reach those most vulnerable quickly and effectively.
  • Take a far-sighted approach focused beyond the immediate response to the crisis and toward recovery and resilience. In a pandemic, the phases of response, recovery, and building resilience do not have clearly demarcated lines, but governments would do well to see the response to the crisis in the context of recovery and the need to build the capabilities to deal with future shocks. 

Taking such steps is necessary not only in the fight against COVID-19, but also to lay the groundwork for meeting the biggest collective action problem of our age, the climate emergency. COVID-19 is underscoring that it will be essential for governments and citizens to work together more effectively, not only in public health crises, but also to deal with natural disasters, food insecurity, decarbonization, and other looming challenges that similarly require coordinated, large-scale responses and sweeping societal change. 

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