Tue. Dec 1st, 2020

COVID-19 crisis could undermine young people's trust in governments

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Coronavirus crisis could undermine young people’s trust in governments and political institutions for years to come, study shows

  • Experts from the UK and US examined how past epidemics impact political trust
  • They found exposure to outbreaks lowers public regard for political leadership
  • This is stronger among young adults and in nations with less stable governments
  • In turn, political distrust can compromise future responses to disease outbreaks
  • As a result, nations handling COVID-19 poorly may increase their risk in future 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

The COVID-19 crisis could end up undermining young people’s trust in governments and political institutions worldwide for years to come, a study has concluded. 

Researchers from the UK and the US studied how past epidemics — from the 1970s up to 2018 — impacted public regard for political institutions, leaders and elections.

They found that the more one is exposed to an epidemic, the more one tends to lose trust in — and engagement with — politicians, government and the election process.

This effect was the most heightened in people who experienced such an outbreak  between the so-called ‘impressionable’ ages of 18 and 25.

Furthermore, the team found that degradation of political trust was stronger in nations where doubts already existed about the effectiveness of government.

Loss of political trust can weaken a nation’s potential to respond to similar challenges in the future — by, for example, lowering compliance with rules. 

As a consequence, the researchers explained, it follows that countries seen to  be handling COVID-19 badly could end up more at risk in future outbreaks.

According to a study released yesterday by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the UK has had the second-worst response to the pandemic of the world’s richest nations.

Loss of political trust can weaken a nation’s potential to respond to similar challenges in the future — by, for example, lowering compliance with rules. As a consequence, countries seen to handling COVID-19 badly could end up more at risk in future outbreaks. Pictured, PM Boris Johnson of Britain, a country rated as having the second-worst coronavirus response of the world’s richest nations in a recent analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit

‘Trust and confidence in government are important for the capacity of a society to organise an effective collective response to an epidemic,’ said paper author and economist Cevat Giray Aksoy of King’s College London and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

‘Yet there is also the possibility that experiencing an epidemic can negatively affect an individual’s confidence in political institutions and trust in political leaders, with negative implications for this collective capacity.

‘We have shown that this negative effect is large and persistent. Its largest and most enduring impact is on the attitudes of individuals who are in their impressionable late-adolescent and early-adult years when an epidemic breaks out.’

In their study, Dr Aksoy and colleagues from the Universities of Sussex and California, Berkeley analysed data on epidemic incidences since 1970, which they compared with responses to Gallup World Polls undertaken from 2006–2018.

These surveys included comments from around 750,000 people across 142 countries worldwide. 

The team found that those with the highest exposure to an epidemic outbreak were 7.2 per cent less likely to have confidence in the honesty of elections than their counterparts with no exposure.

Similarly, exposure to an outbreak resulted in as much as a 5.1 per cent decrease in confidence in national government as an entity, and a 6.2 per cent drop in the approval of political leaders — irrespective of ruling party.

These effects were especially pronounced among young adults between the ages of 18–25 — a period of development in which one forms long-lasting opinions and value systems, past psychological studies have indicated.

The researchers also noted that the loss of trust fostered by outbreaks was the most marked in democratic countries — with a weaker effect seen in autocracies.

Researchers from the UK and the US studied how past epidemics — from the 1970s up to 2018 — impacted public regard for politics. They found that the more one is exposed to an epidemic, the more one tends to lose trust in politicians, government and the election process. Pictured, Donald Trump, president of the United States — which has experienced the world’s highest numbers of both coronavirus cases and deaths since the outbreak began

‘The implications of our findings are disturbing,’ Dr Aksoy concluded.

‘Imagine that more trust in government is important for effective containment, but that failure of containment harms trust in government.

‘One can envisage a scenario where low levels of trust allow an epidemic to spread, and where the spread of the epidemic reduces trust in government still further, hindering the ability of the authorities to contain future epidemics.’

The full findings of the study were published on the Centre for Economic Policy Research website.

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