Trust is the bedrock of all relationships. Both personal and professional. 

We all know about trust between an employee and a boss. Or between a student and teachers. 

But we often don’t think about trust in government. A positive perception of leaders and government is critical for the smooth functioning of a country, especially during times of crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.

Trust is built on high credibility, reliability, and openness, and low self-orientation—the four elements of the trust equation. When all these factors begin to crumble, trust in a leader and government begins to erode.

Falling trust in government makes it that much tougher to solve problems or draft policy. Especially during a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. 

Look at the United States and President Donald Trump whose response to the pandemic has led to a steady erosion of trust in him among Americans. 

According to an NPR, PBS NewsHour, and Marist Poll in March, Americans had little trust in the information they were getting from Trump about COVID-19, and their confidence in the government's response had declined sharply.

The survey showed that just 46% of Americans said the government was doing enough to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, down from 61% in February. 

Just 37% of Americans said they had a great deal of trust in what they were hearing from the president, while 60% said they had little or no trust at all in what he was saying.

These numbers are telling. Trust is key to stemming the spread of the coronavirus pandemic as citizens need to believe the strategies adopted by their governments are trustworthy. But when the boundaries between facts, opinion, and misinformation begin to blur, the credibility and reliability of governments fail. 

Look at Trump’s response to the pandemic. First, he downplayed the impact of the coronavirus by equating the virus with the seasonal flu. He also discouraged people from wearing protective masks and did not take active steps towards social distancing, thus misguiding a large population that could have been saved. 

Then, he aggressively advocated the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine for the coronavirus even though there was no scientific evidence it could prevent the respiratory disease. It also didn’t help when he suggested using disinfectants to cure the respiratory disease.

Trump’s handling of the situation led to a loss of credibility and reliability, two key elements of the trust equation. Credibility simply means you have the credentials, knowledge, and experience to inspire trust. Reliability is the ability to keep promises and meet expectations to build and maintain trust. 

Compare the US president’s handling of the crisis with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s scientific approach to the pandemic. Germany’s extensive testing has kept fatalities down, and its relatively early shutdown of schools, factories and shops has also had some effect. 

Merkel’s crisis-management had an immediate impact on people’s perception of her: It inspired trust among people and pushed up support for her conservative bloc to its highest level in nearly three years. 

The coronavirus pandemic has tested government leaders across the world. It’s their credibility and reliability—or lack of it—that have ultimately tilted the scales for or against them. It’s certainly true for Trump and Merkel, who one columnist called the “yin and yang” of world leaders.

Chandrima Chatterjee is a Specialist with the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. The Delhi School of Economics graduate also loves to read fiction and hopefully will write one someday.

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