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One way to fight the pandemic? Build trust in the government and each other


Apparently, one of the ways a country can fight a pandemic is for its citizens to trust the government and each other. At least that's what one study published in The Lancet last week suggested. And it may give us a glimpse into why the U.S. has such high rates of coronavirus infections despite the wide availability of vaccines and other resources to fight COVID-19. Thomas Bollyky is director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of the study. And he joins us now. Hello.

THOMAS BOLLYKY: Hello. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: First, I hope you can give us some perspective here. Your study spanned 177 countries and territories. And Vietnam actually stood out as a country that perhaps wasn't seen as quite prepared for the pandemic, but it was successful in the fight against COVID-19. Why has that been the case?

BOLLYKY: So Vietnam is a remarkable story. Part of it is that Vietnam has extraordinarily high level in trust in their government. What we found in this Lancet study is that the success or failure of nations to build or mobilize that trust really helps explain some of the big differences we've seen among countries in the infections and deaths they've suffered from COVID-19.

SUMMERS: This raises a question for me. How do you distinguish between trust in a government and, say, fear of an autocratic regime?

BOLLYKY: So first on the data on trust - where we get that from is surveys that have been running for decades. Both Gallup and the World Values surveys do this for government trust, and that's really the data source we use. The other factor that we have here is really the trust we have in one another - an interpersonal trust is a big factor, in fact, even a bigger factor than government trust in our study. And 11 out of 12 of the countries that have the highest level of that - those are all democracies.

SUMMERS: So, Thomas, we know that some of the biggest factors in driving differences in a country's COVID outcomes include things like the population's age, underlying health conditions, the climate of the country. So I'm curious - how does your research account for these types of important factors?

BOLLYKY: Planning for the next pandemic really has already begun. And if we're going to do that effectively, policymakers need some kind of understanding why some nations have done better. And because of that, we look at the factors that are within the government's control and the factors that are not. So as you pointed out, age structure or seasonality or where you're located really aren't in a government's control. And those played a big role, particularly on age in terms of fatalities. So that explains almost half the differences we see globally. But there are a lot of things that are in the government's control. And among those, what really stood out were - was trust.

SUMMERS: So speaking of things that are within a government's control, one of those things is how they speak to the people that live in their country. And, you know, here in the United States, federal officials, including the Centers for Disease Control, have been criticized for not communicating clear advice to Americans during the pandemic. What role does that sort of communication play in mistrust here in the United States?

BOLLYKY: So to give an example, the West Africa Ebola epidemic - the response to that was going quite poorly. How they really turned that around is community-specific engagement - involving members of those communities to rebuild that trust and adapt practices in a way that would be safer. CDC and U.S. officials knew this. Part of our pandemic preparedness guidelines dating back to 2006 emphasized a paramount importance of community-specific, clear, consistent risk communication in a crisis like this one.

SUMMERS: From your perspective, what needs to happen to develop or restore more of this trust that has been lost or that is lacking?

BOLLYKY: Trust is really a shared resource in a community. It's what allows them to do, collectively, what they cannot do themselves. And what we see, particularly for trust in one another, what that tends to be more correlated with globally is income inequality and government corruption. And it shouldn't be a surprise that people that feel politically, economically, socially marginalized are less able to have that trust. And what this pandemic has shown is that our safety ultimately depends on it.

SUMMERS: All right. Thomas Bollyky is the director of the Global Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you so much for joining us.

BOLLYKY: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.