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Trust in the time of coronavirus

Mar 17, 2020 • 15m 05s

Public trust in government is at an all time low, just as we’re turning to our political leaders to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

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Trust in the time of coronavirus

183 • Mar 17, 2020

Trust in the time of coronavirus

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I'm Ruby Jones. This is 7 am.

Containing the Corona virus outbreak requires clear, decisive action from the government, but public trust in our leaders is at an all time low, impacting the way we respond. Today, Mike Seccombe on what the Coronavirus pandemic is telling us about who we trust.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Mike, how much do people trust the Australian government?

MIKE:

Not very much, Ruby, not very much. I've been looking at some of the sort of surveys on this subject. And there's a global one called the Edelman Trust Barometer. And they compare levels of trust across, you know, a couple of dozen governments across the developed and developing world. And they released the 2020 edition of their trust barometer in January.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

MIKE:

And it found that particularly in developed countries, there are unprecedentedly low levels of trust in government, in the media, in business, even in non-government organisations for different reasons.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man # 1:

“A major study of Australian Voters has found trust in government is at a record low, amid growing polarization in the electorate, and a lack of faith in political leaders.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman # 1:

“Trust in government has reached its lowest level on record in 2019…”

MIKE:

Trust generally is down across the board.

And the interesting bit from my point of view lay in what they found about trust inequality, and among the informed public they found, which is, you know, the tertiary educated, high income earning, actively engaged in issues of public policy and business, among that cohort of people, trust in institutions was reasonably high.

But among what Edleman termed the, quote, mass population, it was way, way lower. And the country with the biggest trust gap between the informed public and the mass population was Australia.

RUBY:

So what is that trust gap between those two groups of people in Australia?

MIKE:

Among the informed public, 68 per cent trust for government. Among the so-called mass population, 45 per cent trust. Other surveys show even more dire results. People's faith in politicians doing the right thing by everyone, not just certain interest groups, has plunged over the past decade or so. You know, it's down in single digits in some surveys. It's certainly a lot lower than it formerly was.

RUBY:

Mike, in the context of that trust deficit, I'm interested to know how people have responded to government during other global health crises. Can you tell me what happened with swine flu - one of the last big outbreaks?

MIKE:

Well, the first thing to say is that swine flu was a much bigger public health emergency than is widely appreciated by people now. It killed, by the best estimates, somewhere between 150,000 and 575,000 people worldwide in the 12 months after it first appeared. So it was big.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“The Centres for Disease Control says H1N1 has spread to 46 states. More than one thousand Americans have died and more than twenty thousand have been hospitalized.”

MIKE:

In the United States, which is where it first started, there were 60 million cases of swine flu. Hundreds of thousands of people were hospitalized. In this country, I'm told by health experts, the intensive care wards were chockablock. I mean, it really tested the surge capacity of our health system.

Nonetheless, things here went relatively smoothly compared with the United States. The response from the Obama administration was immediate and quite strong. Within two weeks of the start of the outbreak, when there were only 20 confirmed cases, Obama's people declared a public health emergency. So that swung their health system into high gear. And after about six months, a vaccine had been developed and it was widely available. And the Obama administration began a campaign to encourage people to get that vaccine.

Archival Tape -- Barack Obama:

“This program will be completely voluntary, but it will be strongly recommended.”

MIKE:

And what's interesting here is that Obama's opponents promptly began a counter campaign, the right wing news outlets, notably Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, downplayed the seriousness of the H1N1 threat.

A number of influential commentators there and on talkback radio and some Republican politicians actively discouraged people from getting themselves vaccinated for no better reason that I can see than that the initiative was coming from their political opponents.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“All right. Now, what do you think of the vaccination?”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:

“You know, that's the...I have more concern about the vaccine than I do about the swine flu. It's been rushed to market…”

RUBY:

And so what effect did that counter-campaign have on the spread of swine flu?

MIKE:

Well, the consequences were subsequently set out in rather disturbing detail in a 2011 analysis by an academic called Matthew A Baum of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He found that Democrats were, as a result, almost 50 per cent more likely to get vaccinated than were Republicans. And the result of that was that there was a highly significant correlation between deaths from swine flu and political partisanship.

And so, let me quote him: “Across the US,” he wrote, “as states became relatively more Republican, swine flu deaths rise”. And the point he was making here was not so much that conservative voters were terminally gullible. It was that even seemingly nonpartisan political issues like public health are increasingly characterized by partisan polarization in public attitudes these days.

Archival Tape -- Alan Jones:

“Now, people are being given the impression here that a meteor is about to collide with Earth, and we’re all going to get the virus and suddenly our arms will fall off, and there won’t be enough timber left to make the coffins that are needed…”

MIKE:

That, by way of background, makes it fascinating to watch the reaction of the political right to the Corona virus outbreak. First seeking to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak and secondly, to lay off blame on others.

Archival Tape -- Alan Jones:

“We now seem to be facing the health version of global warming. Exaggeration in almost everything.”

RUBY:

So, Mike, here in Australia, where politics are also increasingly partisan, what has the reaction to the government's response to Coronavirus been like?

MIKE:

Well, it's interesting. The government has done its best, I think, to try and appear bipartisan on this. On Friday, they announced they'd set up a national cabinet made up of state and territory leaders, as well as federal leaders, to oversee the public health response. So that includes some labour people at state level, if not federal level. And one of its first recommendations was that there should be a ban on non-essential events involving crowds of more than 500 people. The interesting thing here is that that prohibition wasn't going to kick in until the following Monday, which left the weekend, which immediately led to criticism from some quarters about the messaging and in particular about Scott Morrison, the prime minister.

Morrison claimed to be acting on the unanimous advice of the country's chief medical officers. But the response of the public suggests a certain lack of faith in the credibility of his decision making and his messaging.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“The fact that I would still be going on Saturday speaks not just to my passion for my beloved sharks. It might be the last game I get to go to for a long time, and that's fine.”

MIKE:

So it seems that in at least some sectors of the community, people just aren't taking the message seriously.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

So Mike, are people sceptical of the advice that they're being given, or the government that's delivering the advice?

MIKE:

Well, I think it's a bit of both, actually. I mean, these decisions, as I said, are being made by a national cabinet and there is medical advice for the decisions they're making. But we're also seeing contradictory medical advice from some other sources. So there is legitimate difference of opinion about the correct response to something like Coronavirus. Some medical experts, for example, think we should be shutting down schools and universities and workplaces and some others think we shouldn't. They both have, you know, reasonably strong arguments. Some would have imposed stricter travel bans much sooner than we have.

So, you know, I don't know if it's anyone's fault, really. It's in part the fact that we haven't had to deal with something like this before, and we're not quite sure how to go about it. But it also does serve to highlight that, you know, in the absence of very clear, very direct communication from government and a government that people trust, people will turn to their own sources of information. And, you know, things like social media and word of mouth, which are not always very reliable.

We're seeing it play out in the empty shelves of supermarkets, seeing it play out in lots of people lining up outside hospitals for tests that the government says they don't need at this point. And that's a big problem, because if we're going to deal effectively with a crisis like Coronavirus, we not only need strong institutions like the government, like the medical bureaucracy, but we need we need the public to have faith in them.

RUBY:

So Mike, we’re talking about a lack of trust in institutions, especially government, and what that means for our response to the coronavirus outbreak. What is causing that lack of trust?

MIKE:

Well, the political turmoil over the past decade has clearly played a part. You know, the revolving door of leadership. If you go back and have a look at the late Howard government period, it was much higher than it is now. At the time that the new Rudd government came in and was actually steering Australia quite effectively through the global financial crisis, it went up considerably. Then as soon as Labour started having its leadership tensions, it plunged. And it's never recovered. So that's one one factor. It’s to do with internal party turmoil. The other is negative campaigning. The rise in negative politics.

Archival Tape -- Tony Abbott

“There he goes again. More fear, more scare. And this, I regret to say, is the whole basis of Mr Rudd's pitch for re-election…”

MIKE:

There's always been something of a feature of politics, of having a go at the other side. But it's been turbo charged by Tony Abbott and continues to be so by Scott Morrison.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“We will not rip off retirees tax refunds as Bill Shorten is planning to do. And you know, Bill Shorten does this because he thinks he can get away with it. He thought he could get away with all this…”

MIKE:

If you go to the last election, Morrison won without setting anything much of a positive agenda at all other than trust us, we'll be good managers of the economy. Instead, they ran a very effective scare campaign against the Labour platform. So Labour made the mistake, in inverted commas, of actually going to the election with a pretty detailed set of policies and they suffered for it.

The other thing that I would suggest has impinged on the trust levels in this particular government, things that have happened since the election, things like the sports rorts affair, various other controversies involving senior ministers about the way the government is spending millions in grant money and the way they're using their political influence. And then, of course, we had the devastating bushfires of this summer which dented the appearance of competence on the part of the Morrison government.

But beyond those specific trust issues, there's something bigger, I think, which is a crisis in confidence, you know, across the board, not just in government, but in institutions in general. In science, in expert opinion, in the capacity to hold rational discussion, in the very notion of objective truth.

RUBY:

So you're saying that we've lost faith in our institutions just at the same time as we're grappling with huge global crises like the current pandemic. Mike, where does that leave us?

MIKE:

Well, I guess the big question now is how the government will react if this crisis gets bigger and becomes more protracted than the government has planned for.

I mean, the current response is predicated on the prospects that it will be over in Australia by mid year, you know, over after winter, which would be a reasonable assumption to make if this was just another seasonal flu that we're dealing with, because, you know, the flu peaks in winter and then it declines.

But this is not just another seasonal flu. This is an entirely different type of virus. There is no vaccine. There is no established treatment. There is no guarantee that it will decline once the seasons change. Experts I've spoken to reckon we're looking at a 12 to 18 month wait for a vaccine. It may be quicker because so much greater global effort is now being put into finding one, but we're still waiting for that breakthrough. The bottom line here is that things may get better sooner or they may not. I mean, we just don't know. And that could place really serious strain on public trust when there isn't much public trust around to begin with.

RUBY:

Mike, great talking to you today.

MIKE:

My pleasure. Thank you for calling.

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

And an update on the coronavirus outbreak:

The number of new cases of COVID-19 in Australia is continuing to climb, with NSW yesterday experiencing its highest increase in new cases in a single day.

The WA Government has announced a 600 million dollar stimulus package, which includes the freezing of all household fees and charges including electricity, water, public transport fares and motor vehicle costs.

An unprecedented state of emergency has been declared in Victoria, following similar moves in Western Australia and New South Wales.

The Reserve Bank of Australia has announced its considering buying Australian government bonds to help the financial system weather the shock of the coronavirus outbreak.

And federal leaders are continuing to urge shoppers to stop panic buying, with supermarkets now announcing restricted opening hours for elderly and disabled people.

We’ll be doing special coronavirus updates after our episodes every day.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

Containing the coronavirus outbreak requires clear, decisive action from the government. But public trust in our leaders is at an all time low and it’s impacting the way we respond. Today, Mike Seccombe on what the coronavirus pandemic is telling us about who we trust.

Guest: National Correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Trust deficit threatens COVID-19 response in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

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183: Trust in the time of coronavirus