by Øyvind Ihlen
University of Oslo, Norway
“Expert communication saves lives” is one of the key messages from the COVID-19 initiative by EUPRERA and a host of other organizations. As stated, the expert communication needs to be transparent about its data. Indeed championing and facilitating transparency is key for communication to build trust that is a necessity for compliance and being able to handle the pandemic.
The national trust levels have been varying to a high degree during the pandemic in most countries. Many countries experienced the so-called “rally around the flag”-effect during the initial phases. Almost inevitable, however, the trust levels have typically sunk in the later phases. Surveys from countries as different as Nigeria and the UK have showed little or no trust in the actions of the government. Political scandals and dismal death figures are obviously central explanatory factors for the falling trust in many countries.
Some countries have fared a bit better. Norway is an example – the death tolls have been relatively low, many have survived after intensive care, and the economic consequences have not been as severe as elsewhere. A public Corona Commission lauded the government for its decisive action (but chastised it for being poorly prepared despite repeated warnings). Importantly, the commission highlighted that the success hinged on the public support and cooperation of the population. In other words, trust raises its head again.
The Nordic region is made up of so-called high trust countries. During the pandemic this offered the authorities an advantageous starting point. But here comes the main, although rather self-evident point: Trust needs to be maintained during the crisis. Seeing positive results is obviously crucial. The mentioned commission highlighted the positive consequences for trust of communicating uncertainties and also being explicit about recommendations from public health experts being different than political decisions.
Much of the research literature also address the benefits of being transparent. The opposite fuels suspicion, which in turn harms trust. Is the government hiding something? Are really all the experts agreeing? How can they be so certain?
The transparency ideal is not unproblematic. Being transparent about some matters, can obscure others. Full transparency is an illusion. An awareness of these and other problems should, however, not derail efforts to strengthen transparency. It is indeed of democratic importance to know whether a particular COVID-decision relied on epidemiological expert advice or was based on political judgment, factoring in concerns for the economy or other issues.
The COVID-19 initiative from EUPRERA is important in highlighting principles like transparency for ethical and effective communication to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.