More Covid deaths in countries with less trust in government, research shows

More Covid deaths in countries with less trust in government, research shows
Civil unrest in response to Covid measures © Belga

Countries where the population has less trust in their government tend to have higher excess deaths from Covid, according to research by the University of Ghent.

The researchers looked at data from 27 countries, including Belgium, and found a negative correlation between the level of public trust in the authorities and the level of excess mortality as a result of Covid-19.

Excess mortality – when there are more deaths than usual – is generally caused by external factors, such as wars, famines, or diseases (as is currently the case). This study doesn’t treat the different Covid strains separately but rather examines how the mortality rates track with government policy.

“We explore how trust in government can influence the ability of COVID-19 policy responses to curb excess mortality during the pandemic,” the article states. “Our findings indicate that stringent policy responses play a central role in curbing excess mortality.”

That conclusion will be familiar to anyone who has been following Covid-19 in Belgium since the pandemic started. While some countries have taken draconian measures to stamp out the virus (with mitigated success, it has to be admitted), Belgium’s approach has been more “on-again, off-again”, with periods of tough restrictions and periods of relatively relaxed policies.

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The effect on disease figures is clear. Increased freedom for the population leads to increased virus circulation. And different national responses lead, not surprisingly, to different outcomes.

“In some countries, such as Sweden and South Korea, governments initially focused on keeping the economy afloat. This saw efforts directed towards protecting the most vulnerable and avoiding large-scale lockdowns whenever possible. Other countries such as China, France or Italy opted for stringent early-on lockdowns, with some countries (particularly in Europe), shifting from the softer to the harder approaches as they observed deficiencies in initial mitigation.”

In Belgium, where trust in the government is relatively low, there is an effect on excess mortality as predicted. Belgium needs stricter measures in place, the scientists suggest, but this might diminish public trust and give rise to civil disobedience.

“I think this is important for Belgium,” said Professor Bram Verschuere of the Department of Public Governance and Management. “At one of the previous Consultative Committees, we saw broad measures that affected entire sectors. I hope that this will be more fine-tuned in the future, in consultation with the sectors.”

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