How Much Do Governments and Societies Trust Each Other? Here's What COVID-19 May Have Revealed

TEXT: Nenad Celarevic – 30. June 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reflect on the nature and effectiveness of governance systems. Leaders are under pressure to make decisions on managing the immediate and long-term impact. Governance models across the globe have been put to the test – from getting people to divert from normal routines, to the provision of public services and respecting democratic rights and freedoms.

Since the end of February, Europe has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, there are significant differences between countries both in terms of the spread of the virus and measures taken. We will need more historical distance from this period to fully grasp the pandemic's impact on our societies and our transformation into a "new normal."

Yet, already available data indicate trends in the relationship between trust in society and measures taken by governments. In this text, we will compare this relationship in the Western Balkans and Western Europe and look at what civil society organizations (CSOs) could do to improve the trust level. In a way, the pandemic might be an opportunity for profound learning about the strengths and weaknesses of different governance arrangements leveraged in response to it. 

From Swedish exceptionalism to prolonged curfews 

In all of the Western Balkan countries, the drastic measures introduced were disproportionate to the risks from the virus (death rates and transmission levels). Decision-makers had to choose between the Swedish option on one side and the Chinese one on the other.

In the Western Balkans, the measures taken were among the most restrictive in Europe. These included the introduction of a daily curfew and a complete ban on movement during the weekend, aimed at achieving social distancing. Government actions were usually followed by war rhetoric and dramatic warnings. Decision-makers found themselves in a pandemic situation, in which the inevitable rise in panic was expected and acceptable.

How to measure the stringency of actions taken against the epidemic? A cross-disciplinary Oxford University team, comprised of academics and students from every part of the world, developed a coronavirus response tracker system to collect publicly available information on government responses. We have compared the stringency index during March and April of the countries in the Western Balkans with that of Switzerland and Sweden. Some indicators for the stringency index are containment and closure policies, such as school closures and restrictions in movement. Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have introduced the most vigorous measures throughout the epidemic.

© Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT).
                                         Graph 1. Stringency index of coronavirus response in March-April 2020.  © Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT).

Do the events of 2020 corroborate that governments trusted by their societies trust them back when it comes to containment measures? At the moment, we do not have sufficiently reliable data to provide decisive answers. But there are indications that the outlined picture is not very far from reality. For instance, the Nordic countries' population is known for their trust in and general satisfaction with their political institutions. Most of them were more lenient in adopting restrictive measures against the spread of coronavirus. Sweden is perhaps the best-known example of an unusually relaxed approach in dealing with the pandemic.

At the same time, on the European continent, former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, including the Balkan countries, demonstrated a low level of trust and satisfaction with political institutions (Graph 2). These countries also had more restrictive measures (e.g. limitation of freedom of movement, closed schools, and curfews).

© European Social Survey wave 9
                                                       Graph 2. Satisfaction with democracy and the health system. © European Social Survey wave 9

The role of trust

It is well established nowadays that the way in which citizens react to government policies is affected by the level of trust in relevant institutions, and in the persons associated with these institutions. It is also empirically proven that countries differ in the level of trust they place in political institutions, such as parliaments, judicial systems, or political parties.

In extraordinary times, this relationship is likely to be even more apparent and hold greater significance. When governments impose extraordinary measures, especially if they infringe on fundamental civil liberties, the role of trust is expected to affect how the population reacts to such policies.

It is also likely that, perhaps implicitly, both governments and citizens are aware of this. Consequently, in countries with high trust, governments could rely more on warnings, suggestions, and regulations than on strict measures like curfews and punishments. Complementary to this, citizens who are trustful of their governments are expected to adhere to the government's rules with the less explicit punitive approach of the latter.

Bojan Todosijević from the Institute of Social Sciences in Belgrade explains: “The data come from the European Social Survey wave 9, conducted in 2018 (ESS project was an SDC mandate and implemented by Helvetas - Project PERFORM). The graphs show both the levels of trust and satisfaction with the functioning of democracy in general and the health system in respective countries.

Two features of the data are immediately noticeable - and not surprising. Levels of trust and satisfaction vary according to common stereotypes. Citizens of Norway and Switzerland trust their institutions and are satisfied with democracy and their health systems. The Balkan countries, Bulgaria and Serbia, are on the opposite side – neither are they happy with their democracies and health systems, nor do citizens trust their institutions. The second group of observations is that the average country levels among the employed measures correlate. Lower satisfaction is associated with lower trust - across the board.”

When it comes to Serbia (Graph 3), the same research showed that the police, which played a pivotal role during the curfews and control of self-isolation, was the only service that gained trust points around the theoretical average. However, citizens do not trust the institutions in general. This is in contrast to a country like Switzerland, where there is much higher trust in institutions. The absence of state-citizens trusts and vice versa led to extreme measures. Citizens do not have confidence in their institutions. At the same time, state institutions do not trust that citizens will follow the guidelines or recommendations on how to behave during the pandemic.

                                          Graph 3. Citizens of Serbia don't demonstrate the same level of trust in institutions as those of Switzerland.

COVID 19 divides – political elites conquer

Governance systems that are centralized and have lower levels of democratic decision-making have recognized the pandemic as an opportunity to cement the powers over society. The biggest challenge among the Western Balkan governments was to avoid the 'Italian scenario,' which would negatively affect the political party's rating and alienate voters.

A low level of trust leads to high levels of division in societies, extensive social cleavages, conflicts between governments and civil society organizations/media, and disputes between ruling parties and opposition. Lack of trust and division results in a lack of societal consensus on an array of critical issues even during the pandemic. During this time, most of the countries saw a rise of civic movements against curfews and lockdowns.

The causes of this mistrust in society are various (and persistent), but it is clear that the authority of state bodies does not ensure compliance with the rules. However, it is difficult to say with certainty the share of citizens who would refuse to respect the rules.

Was this epidemic an opportunity to change the relationship between state and society, at least partially, contributing to the trust-building in the societies?

We have positive examples from the recent past. One can easily remember the participation of civil society in the rehabilitation after devastating floods in the Western Balkan in 2014 and 2015. The cooperation between citizens and the state can produce great results. However, the collaboration lasted for a short time, and both "sides" quickly returned to their usual positions... 

This is what the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer calls a “trust bubble”. According to them, the COVID-19 response increased the trust in governments of 11 surveyed countries to a historical record in 2020: from 11% in January to 65% in May. However, they point out that judging by the previous data, 76% of double-digit increases in trust are followed by a trust loss one year later. 

Wake up call for change

Since there is a missed opportunity for the collaboration and co-design of the decisions between the state and CSOs during the first wave of the pandemic across the region, the question is what we have learned and what the future role of CSOs is. Aida Daguba from Center for Promotion of Civil Society in Bosnia and Herzegovina says:

"Reasons for changing the role of CSOs existed even before the crisis, and the pandemic only reinforced them. Civil society, and especially its institutionalized part (associations and foundations), needs a shift in their work, self-conscience on its purpose, new approach, and new energy. Civil society organizations are playing a critical role in supporting the most vulnerable population during the crisis. Now is time to call for a transformation of political, economic, and financial systems in our countries in the region. Unfortunately, we will face serious constraints in time after the crisis – lack of financial support, as many donors, local and international will cut their funding for CSOs and even increased "brain drain." Having in mind the old issues, such as lack of local ownership, absence of real networking, and a tendency to follow the line of least resistance, I am not an optimist. But I still believe that this change is possible, and I know it is up to us. "

A good example comes from the EYE project in Kosovo. Gracanica Innovation Center quickly adapted to the crisis by starting to produce face shields. The CSO donates the manufactured equipment to hospitals, generating trust between the public services and CSOs, which can result in continued cooperation post-COVID.

There is no conclusion.

For this pandemic, no one was well prepared, but the crisis made some old issues more visible and brought them to the extreme in the region of Western Balkans. By moving to new routines, our societies will need to work together on the principles of solidarity and inclusiveness. Voices of citizens need to be included in the co-design for reshaped futures at the local and global levels. As the virus does not recognize societal differences (rich-poor, male-female, employed / unemployed) or political borders between the states, the answer to the pandemic would also need to be inclusive, with equal treatment and enough space for different voices and actions.

The decisions of the political elites need to come with evidence-based strategies, and an increased level of accountability, having in mind that pandemic is ongoing, and the recovery process will take time. This pandemic is also a chance to increase trust in societies and bring communities together to provide a joint response - by giving a more substantial role to civil society organizations.  

Do you agree or disagree with the author?

Post about it on Linkedin tagging us (@Helvetas Eastern & Southeastern Europe) and let the discussion begin! By following us, you can also learn about our new vacancies and calls for proposals

Subscribe to Helvetas Mosaic

Our articles explore new trends and fresh ideas of international development work in Southeast Europe.

Get inspired with our insights.

More stories to read