Building Trust to Face the COVID-19 Pandemic in Developing Countries

Common measures used to contain COVID-19 in developed countries can be difficult—if not impossible—to replicate in developing countries. How can individuals practice handwashing without reliable access to clean water and soap, social distancing when living in multifamily households, or staying home when informal work provides vital daily income?

A recent article by Saugato Datta in Behavioral Scientist argued that developing countries can’t simply mimic behavioral responses applied in the developed world to contain COVID-19. In order to reduce the spread and impact of the virus, they must tailor their responses to the pandemic to their own circumstances and institutional capacity.

What are these particular circumstances? In developing countries, many people work in the informal sector, without access to social security services, health insurance, and unemployment benefits. They usually depend on hands-on work and daily wages, and live in conditions of poverty (facing, for example, a lack of basic public services and overcrowded households). If you rely on cleaning homes, selling products at a market, or delivering food for daily income, the main measures adopted by developed countries—such as working from home—simply aren’t possible. In addition to these structural problems, governments lack the capacity to react to external shocks (e.g., ineffective bureaucracies combined with poor infrastructure such as lack of hospitals and equipment).

Beyond these constraining socioeconomic factors, developing countries face another challenge in trying to get their citizens to adhere to recommendations: a generalized distrust of governments’ actions. In developing countries, some evidence suggests that even people with the financial means to comply with government recommendations aren’t doing so. Distrust in government could explain why.

Lack of governmental trust, especially during the pandemic, may have detrimental consequences for the future of developing countries. Not only will the coronavirus hit these countries harder if governments fail to get their residents to comply with recommendations, but citizens could also show discontent with future policies, resulting in delayed innovation, investment, employment, and civic engagement.

Lack of governmental trust, especially during the pandemic, may have detrimental consequences for the future of developing countries.

In our analysis of the data from the International Survey on Coronavirus, the World Values Survey, and the Corruption Perception Index, we observe that people in developing countries are adhering less to the preventive measures against COVID-19 than people in developed countries—an expected finding, given the barriers we outline above. However, we also found that in developing countries with higher corruption, people think that their government is untruthful about the virus and incapable of controlling it. Likewise, individuals in developing countries perceive the government’s reaction as suboptimal and fail to follow the recommendations. This distrust makes the situation in developing countries more complex, requiring additional tools that can help governments get their citizens to comply with recommendations to slow the spread of the virus.

Previous crises, such as the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and the H1N1 epidemic in Mexico, showed that trust in government is crucial to motivate citizens to follow governments’ recommendations. Whereas fear and distrust can discourage people from following preventive measures, using health care facilities, and reporting symptoms, trust tends to increase compliance with government recommendations—even when the measures are seen as restrictive and disruptive.

Uruguay is a good example where the high levels of trust in government were accompanied by citizens complying more with government recommendations, resulting in less devastating COVID-19 impacts than those experienced by neighboring countries. These cases show that developing countries could benefit from building governmental trust to increase individual’s adherence to preventive measures.

In developing countries with higher corruption, people think that their government is untruthful about the virus and incapable of controlling it.

How can developing countries overcome the lack of governmental trust that makes fighting the pandemic even more difficult? Policymakers can apply three main insights from behavioral science to increase trust.

Leverage existing community trust

Evidence from other outbreaks suggests that community attachment helps to build governmental trust. Based on expectations of reciprocity and cooperation, people tend to show particularly high confidence in the members of their community. For instance, one study showed that people are more likely to lend money to a stranger who they know is a member of their local church, neighborhood, or school. Our analyses suggest that individuals who show stronger interpersonal trust, which means that they agree that most people can be trusted, tend to comply more with government recommendations aimed at preventing COVID-19.

Take, for example, the strict lockdown that some countries implemented, in which individuals were restricted from sending the kids to school, gathering as a family, and leaving the house as many times as they wished in the same day. Many people may believe that this measure is not helpful when they think about the country as a whole, but it starts to make sense when they consider their local community. Thus, governments could build trust by taking advantage of the confidence people have in individuals or groups in their communities to disseminate their recommendations. For example, they could spread important health recommendations through local networks such as community associations or churches.

Identity leadership

The messenger matters. Several studies have found that leaders who show themselves as part of the community tend to enhance confidence. This approach encourages citizens to adopt a “we are all in this together” mindset that is linked to greater success in shaping citizens’ behavior. Here, two factors are crucial: the extent to which leaders and followers share an identity, and the way that leaders talk and approach the members of the community. Leaders who create and champion shared identity and membership are seen as “one of us” and, thus, are more successful in mobilizing the community. The simple fact of using language which refers to “us” and “we” can make a difference on people’s engagement and have an impact on individuals’ behavior. Leaders who express that they trust that citizens will comply with the rules tend to be more successful in implementing preventive measures. The perception of a collective effort can also help. By stressing that “this is best for all,” leaders are able to inspire greater trust in their citizens and create large-scale cooperation that can prompt more rule-following behaviors.

Effective communication and transparency

The uncertain and sudden nature of COVID-19 makes conspiracy theories, misinformation, and fake news one of the major challenges of this pandemic. Keeping citizens constantly informed influences perceptions of transparency; the content of the information also plays a crucial role in building governmental trust. Governments should develop communication strategies that involve scientific findings reported by experts in the area, such as epidemiologists, and discourage information sharing that lacks a reliable, scientific source.

Moreover, governments should take into account that building trust should not be limited to the pandemic.

In addition to presenting scientific information by experts, leaders and individuals who are trusted by the population should also present information in an accessible and simple way. For example, based on their experience during the Ebola outbreak, the government in Sierra Leone is currently implementing community-based communication strategies, using village elders, religious figures, and local councils to spread information about COVID-19.

Despite the barriers that developing countries face, the COVID-19 crisis can bring opportunities for these governments to inspire greater trust in their citizenry. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer—an international index of trust in governments, NGO’s, businesses, and media—trust in government in some countries such as Canada, China, India, and South Korea peaked in April 2020. This phenomenon may be related to the strong leadership that some governments exhibited: in countries in which leaders implemented clear and stringent responses to COVID-19, citizens perceived the government as truthful and showed less worry. Governments can leverage this fact to rebuild governmental trust across all sectors of society. Moreover, governments should take into account that building trust should not be limited to the pandemic. Once this crisis has passed, they should continue building governmental trust to benefit in other areas, such as taxation, and social and economic policy implementation, all of which are key pieces of societal progress.

The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening people’s lives around the world. But the policies that countries release to fight the pandemic may differ widely. While weighing the costs and benefits of each measure becomes crucial, analyses and recommended courses of action should be context specific and embedded in the unique characteristics of each society. Citizens’ lack of governmental trust signals that developing countries are facing additional challenges. Fortifying citizens’ confidence should be high on the list of developing countries’ priorities. Building governmental trust to fight the pandemic today opens up opportunities to create more prosperous, thriving nations in the future.