Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Trust in governments globally has surged to record highs due to drastic interventions to curb the spread of Covid-19. For the first time since Edelman started monitoring trust two decades ago, government is more trusted than business, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the media. A huge collaborative effort is needed to ensure this is not merely a fleeting trust bubble.

As the virus spread beyond China and authorities started implementing extreme measures to save lives, trust in government surged 11 percentage points to 65%, the highest level yet, according to the findings of Edelman’s recently released midyear Trust Barometer research

While the data did not focus on Africa, it is likely that similar trends are unfolding on the continent, as evidenced by non-partisan support for SA’s initial lockdown period and widespread buy-in from the private sector though the economy was expected to take a serious hit.

World Health Organisation (WHO) officials praised the SA government for its early interventions, including the launch of an ambitious testing programme and its reliance on expert advice. The government, a serial underperformer in Edelman’s Trust Barometer, was clearly winning over the public as it took steps to protect citizens, bolster the health-care system and draw up plans to assist struggling businesses.

Safeguarding jobs

But as economic pressures mount and social inequalities are laid bare — and as other stakeholders flag perceived missteps and inconsistencies by government leaders — sentiment has undoubtedly started to shift, though this is by no means unique to SA. The crisis is now evolving at a rapid pace, and authorities globally are working on lockdown exit strategies. As they do, governments face the risk of a bursting trust bubble — or a disappointing return to distrust.

To ensure the recent uptick in trust is sustainable, governments will need to work more closely than ever with business and NGOs, and must demonstrate tangible progress in fighting the pandemic and safeguarding economies and jobs. These efforts should not be premised on a return to normalcy. In their collaborations, institutions need to solve the crisis in a way that results in a more resilient and fair system. The pandemic has intensified perceptions of the system being unfair and has further stoked fears of job losses and misinformation.

Most people surveyed (67%) for the latest iteration of the barometer believe that those with less education, less money and fewer resources are bearing the brunt of the pandemic and lockdown regulations. Most are worried about losing their jobs due to the pandemic and remaining unemployed for a long time. Still, most respondents favour a measured and cautious approach to reopening the economy, indicating that governments face the difficult task of balancing health and safety concerns with economic ones.

More than two-thirds of respondents want businesses to proactively engage with government to regulate their companies in a way that protects people and the planet while also giving them room to innovate and solve problems.

Through this period, one of government’s most important tasks will be to keep the public informed. Frequent and transparent communications will be critical to maintaining trust. Society is also looking for non-partisan decision-making, with ongoing interventions to protect jobs and ensure citizens are equipped with the tools needed for an increasingly digital world of work.

The spotlight is also shifting to the private sector as economies reopen. So far, business has fallen short of society’s expectations in its response to the crisis, our data shows. Society wants business to deliver on recent promises to adopt a multistakeholder operating model. This can be done by including more small businesses in supply chains, and by reskilling employees, for example. Business leaders are also expected to stand up and be heard, and to proactively work with government and NGOs to devise solutions.

Our data shows that neither business nor government is trusted to tackle this crisis alone. There is twice as much trust in a combined business-government effort than in government or business taking on Covid-19 in isolation.

Some progress has been made on this front. For instance, SA has launched a R200bn loan guarantee scheme — a risk-sharing partnership between the government and commercial banks aimed at propping up small- and medium-sized companies affected by the lockdown.

This is a good start, but much more needs to be done if institutions hope to see a permanent improvement in their trust scores.

• Rittenberry is CEO of Edelman Africa.