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December 17th, 2020
Legitimacy
Naja Nelson Associate, North America

Legitimacy & COVID-19: Why rebuilding trust in government is imperative to responding to and recovering from the pandemic

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.@CPI_foundation think low levels of trust in gov exacerbates the problem of 'fake news'. W/ rising #COVID19 cases, legitimacy is imperative

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Why is trust in gov important to #COVID19 response? @Najaaaaaaaaaa on the need for transparency, collaboration & community care

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Only 14% Black Americans & 34% of the Latinx community trust the vaccine will be safe. How can gov gain the trust of communities of colour?

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At the start of the pandemic, many Americans received messages from well-meaning loved ones warning that COVID-19 was a hoax or that COVID-19 was linked to 5G. While these stories have since been debunked, there remains a tremendous amount of misinformation and skepticism around COVID-19, despite the availability of reputable information. Though myriad factors contribute to the perpetuation of this ‘fake news,’ we believe low levels of trust in government only exacerbates the problem. As COVID-19 cases rise across the country, rebuilding government legitimacy is imperative to ensure an effective public health response to the pandemic.

Government legitimacy refers to the relationship between public institutions and the communities they serve. In the US, data on the low levels of trust in government institutions reveals that the relationship between residents and the government is deeply strained. According to the Pew Research Center, only “20% of U.S. adults say they trust the government in Washington to “do the right thing[…] just about always or most of the time.” The Pew Research Center also reports that only 42% of Americans believe that the US government effectively handles threats to public health, an unsurprising data point considering the rise in misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though myriad factors contribute to the perpetuation of this ‘fake news,’ we believe low levels of trust in government only exacerbates the problem. As COVID-19 cases rise across the country, rebuilding government legitimacy is imperative to ensure an effective public health response to the pandemic.

The repercussions of this mistrust are grave. Over the past months, we witnessed numerous cases of individuals losing their lives, or putting the lives of their fellow community members at risk, because they did not take simple precautions due to their wholehearted belief that COVID-19 is a hoax. We saw it when shoppers in Florida ran through Target maskless and yelling, and again when Diana Lachionodo had to depart from a district meeting after anti-mask protesters surrounded her home with her child inside. 

We have repeatedly seen a lack of trust in government manifest itself as deliberate choices to ignore and attack public health guidance. Moving forward, governments must take proactive steps to rebuild confidence with the American people. While gaining trust is not easy, it is not impossible. Here are some steps we have seen leaders take during the pandemic that are contributing to a stronger relationship with residents:

Understand community care and put it into practice

Community care is defined as the willingness of “people to commit to leveraging their privilege to be there for one another in various ways.” Across the country, we have seen an unprecedented uptick in joblessnessevictions, and mental health problems. Leaders who recognize these realities and transparently strive to address them show residents that they care about their struggles. 

Governor Steve Bullock, for example, put community care into practice when he took concrete actions to prioritize the wellbeing of residents by issuing an early “order prohibiting evictions of tenants and prohibiting landlords from charging late fees on rentals for the extent of his stay-at-home order to stop the spread of COVID-19.” Governor Bullock saw a need in his community and took bold action to meet it early on. Governor Bullock’s efforts both demonstrated his recognition of residents’ struggles and supported their ability to follow stay-at-home guidance.

Opt for transparency

Governments often operate within a “closed-by-default environment, in which departments minimize transparency to avoid criticism and blowback.” To manifest community trust, however, officials should opt for transparency. This allows constituents to see them as ‘human’ and paves the path for a more collaborative and productive relationship.

Mayor Francis Suarez demonstrated the power of transparency when, in mid-March, he became infected with COVID-19.  Rather than keeping it a secret from his constituents, he led with openness by creating a live blog via Twitter to share updates on his health and what the city was doing to protect residents. Not only did this choice humanize Suarez in the eyes of his constituents, shown by high levels of engagement with his posts, it also allowed major media outlets to use his experience in support of the argument for social distancing.

Looking forward to vaccine distribution, elected officials must prioritize building community trust

As we consider vaccine distribution, rebuilding government legitimacy is essential. In the months ahead, it is expected that both local and federal government officials will be leading the charge on the distribution of “highly, highly efficacious vaccines.” As explained by Dr. Fauci, however, a key factor determining vaccine efficacy in society at large is “how many people decide they want to get vaccinated.” 

In the US, adaptation may prove difficult as many Americans have vaccine hesitancy. In August, just 51% of Americans reported willingness to take a vaccine. Now, with vaccines soon to come to market, that number has increased to 63%”. 

While this highlights a positive shift in overall American attitudes, a deeper dive into communities of color, who have also been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, is not as promising. According to Covid Collaborative, only “14% of Black Americans trust that the vaccine will be safe and 18% trust that it will be effective in shielding them from the coronavirus.” The Covid Collaborative also found that among Latinx communities, only “34% trust its safety and 40% trust its effectiveness.” 

This large gap in vaccine hesitancy reflects a deep fissure in the relationship between the government and communities of color, one that is tremendously frayed and will require significant investment to repair. While efforts to build trust around the vaccine are just beginning, we have already seen one strategy that holds promise:

Work collaboratively with community organizers

Community organizers and organizations are intimately aware of the needs of their neighbors. By building relationships with local organizations, governments can gain greater insight into their constituents’ needs, allowing for more strategic approaches to solving community problems. 

For example, Father Abernathy, a local faith leader and founder of the Neighborhood Resilience Project, was quickly able to identify the growing medical mistrust in his community regarding COVID-19 vaccines. In response, he began training community members to serve as community health deputies who would provide masks, deliver food and pharmaceuticals to the elderly, alongside training community deputies on how to handle conversations regarding medical mistrust with compassion and care.

According to Covid Collaborative, only “14% of Black Americans trust that the vaccine will be safe and 18% trust that it will be effective in shielding them from the coronavirus.” The Covid Collaborative also found that among Latinx communities, only “34% trust its safety and 40% trust its effectiveness.”

In conclusion

Throughout the pandemic, we have seen low trust in government manifest as the spread of misinformation, defiance of public health guidelines, and vaccine hesitancy. While the dire consequences of low trust are now being brought to stark relief, the fraying of the relationship between government and those it serves has long existed in America. Now, the government has both an opportunity and a responsibility to rebuild legitimacy. By strengthening the relationship between government and residents, America will be better equipped to respond to COVID-19 and build back better on the other side.

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The CPI team in North America is committed to strengthening the relationship between people and government.

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Naja Nelson Associate, North America
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