Trusting societies have fared better during the pandemic, study says

EXETER, United Kingdom — The COVID-19 pandemic has been a test for all of society, to put it lightly. Could a lack of trust be making things worse? Researchers from the University of Exeter report countries with more trusting populations have had greater success lowering COVID-19 infection rates and saving lives.

More specifically, study authors explain there is a “threshold effect” among nations when at least 40 percent of its citizens agree they can trust most people. If a nation met this threshold, less people contracted COVID-19 and died in 2020.

Trust among citizens can vary greatly from country to country. For example, while U.K. trust levels linger around 40 percent, Scandinavian countries and China hover around the 60 percent mark. When the research team assessed COVID-19 stats among countries for 2020, they noticed that more trusting societies were able to get the virus under control in a more efficient manner, achieving a faster decline in infections and deaths from peak levels.

As far as why this is the case, researchers theorize that mitigation efforts like mask-wearing and social distancing require mutual trust to really succeed.

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“Our results add to evidence that trust within society benefits resilience to epidemics. Building trust within communities should be a long-term project for all nations because this will help them cope with future pandemics and other challenges such as extreme events caused by climate change,” say study co-author professor Tim Lenton in a university release.

Trust doesn’t necessarily mean the same as trust in government

All in all, these findings suggest that two countries can implement the exact same COVID-19 containment strategies and experience vastly different results depending on levels of trust among their residents.

The team analyzed over 150 countries during this study, thanks to data collected by the Our World in Data COVID-19 dataset up until December 2020. So, these findings do not reflect the impact of vaccine rollouts in 2021.

Every included country featuring a trust rating of over 40 percent achieved “a near complete reduction of new cases and deaths.” However, some countries with a lower trust rating also achieved such a feat, suggesting trust isn’t the only major factor at play here. Interestingly, trust in one’s government specifically didn’t appear to have much impact on COVID-19 control success rates.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.