AuthorRadu, Bianca
  1. Introduction

    The coronavirus pandemic put a lot of demands on public institutions to change the style of making decisions in a rapidly evolving environment, while financial resources were limited. Trust in public institutions appeared as an important element to mediate citizens' compliance with mandatory measures, some of which were very restrictive on individuals' freedom. It was a rapidly changing situation, with limited knowledge on how to act, and therefore it was difficult for public institutions to maintain their credibility.

    Trust is a key ingredient that can ease the activity of public institutions in times of crisis, and therefore it was an extensively researched topic in the coronavirus context. Research showed that trust in public institutions influences citizens' willingness to comply with mandatory regulations and to adhere to the advices of health authorities during the coronavirus pandemic (Kumagai and Iorio, 2020; Fahlquist, 2021; Lalot et al., 2020; Elgar et al., 2020; Hassing Nielsen and Lindvall, 2021). For example, research conducted in Slovakia in April 2020 on a sample of 1,000 respondents showed higher compliance with social distancing measures and the use of facemask requirements among people who trusted public institutions. Bargain and Aminjonov (2020) found that the decline in the human mobility for non-necessary activities (such as recreation, work and transportation) around mid-March 2020 was significantly higher in European regions that had a higher level of confidence in authorities prior to the coronavirus crisis. In Norway, a country that has a high level of trust in government, a large proportion of the population was willing to voluntarily download an application developed by the government to provide data about population movement. Kukovic (2022) showed that in countries with high levels of political trust citizens have accepted without much hesitation measures to protect public health. However, vaccine acceptance was not only contingent on the trust in public institutions responsible with the authorization of the vaccine, but also with the trust in the research community which produced the vaccine (Szilagyi et al., 2021; Schmelz and Bowles, 2021; Goodwin et al., 2022). Bagasra et al. (2021) showed, based on research that examined ethnic differences on the willingness to get the anti-coronavirus vaccine, that trust in the scientific community was higher among citizens who received at least one dose of vaccine. In addition, Christensen and Lxgreid (2020) highlighted the importance of credible public leaders who can inspire people during threatening and uncertain situations.

    Even though trust in public institutions increases citizens' compliance with regulations, trust is a double-edge sword because too much trust and low perceived risk of infection leads to low compliance with risk management measures (Wong and Jensen, 2020) or to naive beliefs that the government is managing the pandemic (Devine et al., 2021, p. 277). Hartley and Jarvis (2020) showed that in Hong Kong the previous experience of citizens with a pandemic compensated for the low level of trust in public institutions, and individuals and organizations adopted distancing and hygiene measures before the government officially introduced them.

    Building trust in public institutions contributes to enhancing citizens' willingness to support or to reduce opposition to policies intended to contain the spread of coronavirus. The goal of this paper is to analyze different measures to build trust in public institutions during times of crisis based on the experience accumulated during the coronavirus crisis. In the second section of the paper, we briefly analyze the main changes in trust in European Union member states during the coronavirus pandemic, while in the third section we analyze the strategies to build trust during crisis situations. The paper will conclude by reflecting on the differences between strategies to build trust in times of crisis and non-crisis.

  2. Evolution of trust in the context of the coronavirus pandemic in the European Union member states

    The analysis of Eurobarometer data regarding trust in the national government shows that trust fluctuated over time (the analyzed period was between spring 2016 and autumn 2021). However, between autumn 2019 and summer 2020, 22 EU member states (including UK) faced an increase of trust in government. The highest increases were in Cyprus (15%), Denmark (15%), Netherlands (15%), UK (13%) and Germany (11%). In other countries, the level of trust in government decreased, for example in Bulgaria (-9%), Slovenia (-6%) and Belgium (-5%) (see Figure 1 and Table 1).

    Comparing the changes in the level of trust between autumn 2019 and summer 2020 with the changes in the levels of trust in the previous years, we notice that in the case of some countries similar increases or decreases took place previously. However, these changes were totally different from the trends observed in the past for 9 countries. The countries that registered the highest increases were Austria (9%), Croatia (9%), Cyprus (15%), Denmark (15%), Germany (11%), Greece (9%), Ireland (9%), The Netherlands (15%) and UK (13%). However, the Eurobarometer data collected in winter 2020-2021 shows a predominant decrease of trust in government in the majority of EU member states (see Table 2).

    The sudden increase of the government support in times of crisis is well documented in the literature, and the authors have labeled the effect as 'rally-round-the flag' effect (Hetherington and Nelson, 2003; Edwards, 1997; Kritzinger et al., 2021; Schraff, 2021; Bxkgaard et al., 2020; Dietz et al., 2021) or remobilization-of-trust (Wollebxk et al., 2012). At the beginning of 2020, the health threats posed by the coronavirus pandemic affected all groups from the society and therefore, in some countries, the crisis generated population solidarity and a high level of cooperation between political parties (Bol et al., 2021). Hassing Nielsen and Lindvall (2021) argue that coalitions of groups who are often political opponents formed in the context of the pandemic. However, in countries with high partisan polarization and low levels of trust, citizens did not rally around the government, as it was the case in France (Kritzinger et al., 2021). One possible argument for the rally-round-the flag effect is that citizens try to offset the uncertainties created by the pandemic by rallying around the national government, while the media priming influences citizens' perceptions of the government actions (at least during the start of the pandemic) (Edwards, 1997). Dietz et al. (2021) conducted web-based research among 1,385 German citizens in September 2020, and found that fear of COVID-19 is the dominant factor that explains the formation of the support for government during the coronavirus pandemic. Similarly, Rump and Zwiener-Collins (2021), based on a national survey conducted on German population in March 2020, provide additional evidence that the initial increase of the societal trust in public institutions was an emotional one, and it did not depend on the government decisions to manage the pandemic. Hetherington and Nelson (2003) argue that citizens rally around a leadership figure out of patriotism as the leader represents rather a national symbol of unity. Previous studies on other international crises (such as terrorist attacks) showed that the magnitude and longevity of the rally effect varies from large support that lasted for more than a year, to medium and small support that lasted few weeks or months (Kritzinger et al., 2021). Several studies (Edwards, 1997; Bengtsson and Brommesson, 2021) showed that the public confidence in leaders and national government is of short term, and the effect is larger among the individuals most disposed to support the government response in the first place (Jorgensen et al., 2021; Chatagnier, 2012).

    The analysis of Eurobarometer data shows that by winter 2020-2021, citizens' confidence in national governments decreased in the majority of EU member states. Table 3 shows the percentage changes in trust in National Government, National Parliament and public administration between autumn 2019 and spring 2021. The largest decreases of trust in the National Government were in the UK (-34%), Austria (-21%) and Czech Republic (-21%), Cyprus (-18%), Portugal (-14%) and Denmark (-13%). Trust in the National Parliament declined in the UK (-33%), Denmark (-16%), Austria (-14%), Czech Republic (-12%) and Cyprus (-10%). In the same period, trust in public administration declined in most of the countries, with the highest decreases taking place in Slovenia (-16%), Lithuania (-13%), Cyprus (-10%), Czech Republic (-10%) and Poland (-10%). The percentage change of trust in these institutions continued to decline between summer 2020 and winter 2020-2021, and winter 2020-2021 and spring 2021, even though the decline slowed down.

    Trust in regional authorities registered moderate increases between autumn 2019 and summer 2020; the largest increase being in the UK (11%), Greece (12%), Croatia (9%) and Cyprus (8%). However, by winter 2020-2021, trust in regional authorities declined in the majority of EU member states (see Table 3). The largest decreases were in Lithuania (-16%), Slovenia...

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