Societal Trust & Covid-19

Societal trust had much to do with how governments responded to covid-19, and how citizens reacted.

Residents of northwestern European nations trust their governments and fellow citizens quite a lot, whereas those in southern and eastern Europe do not. This deep sociocultural spectrum reflects political history. Social trust correlates with economic vitality, low crime, and societal sense of well-being.

High-trust governments relied on their citizens to voluntarily observe guidelines for social distancing. Germany has had little confrontational policing. The Netherlands closed schools and restaurants, but otherwise “treated people as adults, not children,” said prime minister Mark Rutte. Sweden merely advised its citizens against non-essential travel. The Germans, Dutch, and Swedes followed government recommendations.

Contrastingly, low-trust states were harsh in enforcing lockdowns. India and the Philippines were brutal in their lockdowns, as were several dozen more states, notably in the Middle East and Africa.

Eastern European nations quickly took to severe lockdowns. Romania is exemplary if extraordinary. A brutal communist dictatorship followed by decades of corruption left Romanians suspicious of institutions and each other. The government responded to covid-19 with a strict lockdown: declaring a state of emergency even before any Romanian had died of it. Leaving home required a written declaration of purpose. By mid-April the Romanian police had issued 200,000 fines totaling $85 million to scofflaws.

Romanians practiced social distancing not just because the government demanded it. Few trust the country’s decrepit health system to treat them if they get sick. Some recall food shortages in the 1980s and were quick to shift into crisis mode. Romanian sociologist Barbu Mateescu called Romania “uniquely equipped in Europe” to deal with hardship.

In western Europe, unsurprisingly, lockdowns have been toughest where the epidemic proved deadliest. Italy was first, albeit initially clumsily. Used to getting around regulations, Italians took to flaunting the restrictions.

The French and Spanish trust the government and others even less than cynical Italians. France and Spain also had horrendous epidemics. And over a million French and Spanish were given fines for transgressing the rules.

As contrasted to 40% less mobility in trusting European states, those that severely locked down reduced mobility by 80%.

With a history of dictatorship and corrupt plutocratic democracy in recent decades, South Korea should be a low-trust country. But the South Korean government handled its covid-19 epidemic with clarity and transparency, eschewing lockdown for extensive testing and selective isolation. Just past the peak of its epidemic, the government was reelected in a landslide.

With its strong conservative backbone and yet bulging liberal underbelly, the US is a strange low-trust county. Its nominally authoritarian president did nothing but deceive the public about covid-19. Individual states decided social restrictions and their enforcement – the liberal states went for lockdown straight away while the conservative ones only reluctantly did so. Libertarians agitated against precautions whereas liberals embraced them. In a nutshell, all the US governments did with their covid-19 response was ruin the economy and impoverish the people. Mistrust there has yet to find its floor.

Reduced mobility made some difference in how quickly covid-19 spread. But the lockdowns were all belated and covid-19 is especially wily in its infectiousness. The story of the covid-19 pandemic is still being written.

Besides throwing the global economy into an economic depression, what covid-19 has done of lasting impact is either heighten or lower people’s trust of their society’s institutions – and of each other.


Ishi Nobu, “Coronavirus pandemic,” (updated daily)

Do low-trust societies do better in a pandemic?The Economist (2 May 2020).