Spotlight 10: What’s trust got to do with it? State-society relations and COVID-19 recovery

Ines Schultes, Senior Researcher

Public trust in leadership and institutions is key for an effective response to the COVID-19 crisis. High trust societies tend to be more successful in fighting epidemics. Not only does trust matter for public support and adherence to health and safety measures, it is also an essential element in countries’ paths to recovery. Trust levels affect both the primary health impacts of a pandemic, such as vaccination campaigns, as well as secondary effects such as restrictions on citizens’ freedom and rights as part of lockdown measures.

Trust in political leaders is low in Africa

Across 34 African countries, only 46.8% of citizens trust their political leaders*, while trust in community leaders, such as traditional (55.8%) and religious leaders (69.4%), is much higher. 

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Research Spotlight series

A new series exploring data and key findings from the 2021 Ibrahim Forum Report. 

Afrobarometer surveys also reveal how Africans are concerned about their leaders using the pandemic for private gain. On average, across 12 African countries, almost 70% of respondents believe that resources intended for the pandemic have fallen victim to corruption. Almost 60% fear that politicians are increasing their power and authority under the guise of managing the health crisis.

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Africans have little trust in their governments ensuring the safety of COVID-19 vaccines

According to these Afrobarometer surveys, less than half the respondents in all 12 countries bar Mauritius (see graph below) trust their governments to ensure the safety of COVID-19 vaccines before offering them to their citizens. Trust is as low as 20% in Liberia and 15% in Senegal. In turn, the likelihood of vaccine uptake is also low. Only in Mauritius (72%), Zambia (59%) and Benin (51%) did more than half of the respondents report that they are likely to try to get vaccinated. 

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On average, only 38.5% of respondents across 12 African countries trust their countries’ official COVID-19 statistics. Trust in government statistics is highest in Mauritius (66%) and Zimbabwe (50%), and lowest in Liberia (30%) and Gambia (22%). 

Disruptions to democratic practices are still happening  

As shown in the 2021 Ibrahim Forum Report, a large majority of African countries compromised democratic standards during the first year of the pandemic. According to data from V-DEM’s Pandemic Violations of Democratic Standards Index, all 44 African countries under review, except for Botswana, have violated at least one democratic practice as part of their COVID-19 response between March and December 2020. 

More recent data for the first half of 2021 show some improvement. For 14 countries, the level of democratic violations has remained the same as in 2020. Three countries - Botswana, Malawi and South Sudan - have had more democratic disruptions. However, 27 countries have scaled-down their level of violations, with Burkina Faso, Namibia and Togo not making any violation in 2021.


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COVID-19 recovery needs citizens’ buy-in 

In the face of existing low levels of trust, African governments will need to work harder to ensure that citizens do not become more disenfranchised. A sustainable recovery from COVID-19 will not be possible without citizens’ buy-in to government policies and measures. 

Inequitable vaccine access remains the major hindrance to Africa’s fight against the pandemic, but vaccine information campaigns can help to ramp up vaccine acceptance and to strengthen citizens’ trust in the vaccine roll-out.  As noted above, violations of democratic rights are less prevalent now than at the start of the pandemic, but they still pose a problem in many African countries. During the 2021 Ibrahim Governance Weekend, panellists cautioned that the pandemic response must not lead to a hostile environment for democracy given the associated risks with disenfranchisement. 

African governments’ handling of the next phases of the pandemic will matter not only for the containment of COVID-19 but for future state-society relations. Research by the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) reveals just how challenging it is to rebuild trust with citizens following a crisis. GIGA found that in Liberia, trust in the president in 2018 had still not recovered to pre-Ebola trust levels in 2012. But if handled well, governments’ COVID-19 policies could even offer an opportunity for building-up legitimacy and trust.