Dr. Catherine Wong Mei Ling, LRF Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk, National University of Singapore
Dr. Olivia Jensen, LRF Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk, National University of Singapore
A high level of trust in the government is normally a good thing for risk management and risk communication. If the public trusts the authorities, they will have fewer fires to fight when communicating threats to the public and providing advice on the appropriate actions to be taken.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has shown that trust can be a double-edged sword. A public that has a high level of trust in the government’s competence, transparency and leadership can, in fact, lead to complacency. This leads people to underestimate risks and reduce their compliance with risk management measures.
Our preliminary analysis in Singapore during the first wave of COVID-19 found this to be the case. Singapore enjoys a high level of public trust in government compared to other high-income countries. The latest World Values Survey showed that 24% of people in Singapore report having a ‘great deal of confidence’ in their government, compared to 5.8% in South Korea, 5.5% in Germany or 3.7% in the U.S. Indeed, this placed the government in strong position to implement strong measures to suppress the virus.
But when the first wave of COVID-19 infections reached Singapore in late January 2020, the government did not immediately deploy a nation-wide lockdown. Rather it first adopted a more advisory approach, encouraging the public to practice good hygiene and social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.
Instead of downplaying the risks in order to avoid public panic, the government used a narrative of ‘defensive pessimism’ to heighten rather than lower levels of perceived risk. The purpose of this form of risk communication was not to make people feel safer but rather to prepare them mentally for future risks. This, it was thought, would induce the public to change their behaviour and comply with government advisories. This mode of communication was consistent with earlier studies on the SARS outbreak in 2003 by researchers in Hong Kong, which found that individuals who were more anxious about SARS risks were more likely to adopt risk-reducing behaviour.
The opposite, however, seemed to have been the case, at least in the early stages of COVID-19 in Singapore. We conducted sentiment analysis of 200,002 Tweets from 1.89 million Singapore-linked accounts that used hashtags related to the coronavirus in the period 29 January to 28 February. Our preliminary analysis showed that the detailed communications issued by the government in the first month of the COVID-19 crisis did not induce predominantly negative emotional reactions. Despite the ‘defensive pessimism’ approach to public communication, a majority of Tweets (62%) were of positive valence, containing terms associated with positive emotions and approval like ‘hero’ and ‘solidarity’ (see figure 1).
As things progressed, the low levels of public compliance to government advisories and rising infection numbers led to more stringent measures. On 7 April 2020, Singapore went into a partial lockdown. Schools and physical workplaces were closed except for essential services. Cafes, bars and restaurants were shut and only allowed to provide take away orders. The majority of students and workers had to shift to home-based learning and telecommuting.
Even then, many people continued to ignore social distancing requirements and to congregate at high risk locations such as food markets and sports facilities. Just three days after the lockdown was announced, authorities issued 10000 advisories, 3100 warnings and 40 fines to members of the public for social distancing violations.
To try and understand the lack of public compliance, we conducted two Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) on WhatsApp shortly after the partial lockdown was announced. FGD #1 was composed of participants who mostly chose not to comply with social distancing guidance before the partial lockdown came into force; and FGD #2 was composed of participants who largely chose to follow voluntary social distancing advisories before the partial lockdown was announced.
We found that participants in FGD #1 had a high level of trust in the government. This, however, was accompanied by a low level of perceived risk and low compliance with earlier advisories. Conversely, participants in FGD #2 expressed more scepticism towards the government and higher levels of anxiety. This was accompanied by a greater willingness to comply with government advisories before the lockdown.
We also found that, independent of trust, other more personal factors seemed to have an important influence on participants’ evaluation of risk and compulsion to comply. These were mainly the presence of extended family in the same city, and the presence of vulnerable members in the household.
Acceptable social distancing
“Social distancing” was a key feature of the government’s mitigation measures. But we found that the notion of “acceptable social distancing” was open to multiple different interpretations.
In the minds of both groups of participants, they considered themselves to have practiced acceptable social distancing, commensurate with their evaluation of the risks. FGD #1 participants felt that by confining their social activities to a limited group of trusted friends, they were already practicing social distancing. Meanwhile, FGD #2 limited their socialising only to family members but still continued to patronise cafes, hawker centres and playgrounds before the partial lockdown.
Strictly speaking, neither group had adhered to social distancing. But both felt they had because they had trust in either their close group of friends or close family members.
The paradox of trust
The observations from our study show that trust can make the task of risk management more difficult in a pandemic. A high level of public trust in the government can result in low levels of perceived risk and non-compliance with risk management measures – what we could call the “caretaker effect”. Like a child holding the hand of a careful parent pays less attention when crossing the road, citizens might take less care of themselves when they feel protected by a competent government.
The challenge, therefore, is in how to get the public to recognise the need for individual actions despite having trust in the government to manage collective risks. Conversely, authorities and experts also need to recognise that factors other than risk and uncertainty information inform individual choices to comply or otherwise.
Individuals have a role in building trust and contributing to risk management, especially during a pandemic. The paradoxical effects of trust brought to light by this pandemic also give us food for thought as to how governments, risk managers and experts can communicate in a way that simultaneously builds trust while maintaining a high enough level of perceived risk to spur individual action.
 A Hawker Centre in Singapore is a food court with a range of stalls selling a variety of Asian cuisines.
The article on the “Paradox of Trust” is available here:
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this paper belong solely to the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the author’s employer.