Young people’s trust in government damaged long-term by COVID-19

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Generation Z are likely to have less faith in elections and their own governments for the rest of their lives as a result of their experiences growing up during the coronavirus pandemic, a new study shows.

The research indicates that individuals who experience an epidemic outbreak in their ‘impressionable years’ (between the ages of 18-25) are less likely to have confidence in political institutions and leaders and harbour more negative attitudes towards elections.

The findings were revealed in a new working paper, The Political Scar of Epidemics, published by the Systemic Risk Centre at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Data for the paper was compiled using responses to the 2006-2018 Gallup World Polls and data on the incidence of epidemics since 1970. The data included responses from 750,000 respondents from 142 countries.

The responses revealed that an individual with the highest exposure to an epidemic, is 7.2 percentage points less likely to have confidence in the honesty of elections; 5.1 percentage points less likely to have confidence in the national government; and 6.2 percentage points less likely to approve the performance of the political leader in the remainder of their lives.

The negative impact on trust in political institutions and governments was most marked in democracies, with less effect seen in autocracies. Governments that are perceived to be ‘weaker’ at the time of an outbreak are also more likely to experience a more pronounced fall in public trust.

Paper co-author Dr Orkun Saka, Assistant Professor at the University of Sussex and Visiting Fellow at LSE said: “Trust and confidence in government are important for the capacity of a society to organise an effective collective response to an epidemic.
“Yet there is also the possibility that experiencing an epidemic can negatively affect an individual’s confidence in political institutions and trust in political leaders, with negative implications for this collective capacity.
“We have shown that this negative effect is large and persistent. Its largest and most enduring impact is on the attitudes of individuals who are in their impressionable late-adolescent and early-adult years when an epidemic breaks out.”

Those aged 18-25 are described as being in their ‘impressionable years’ – a period of life, psychological studies have suggested, when value systems and opinions are durably formed.

The authors note that worryingly, a decline in trust can impact on a government’s ability to respond to crises in the future.

Dr Saka said: “The implications of our findings are disturbing. Imagine that more trust in government is important for effective containment, but that failure of containment harms trust in government.
“One can envisage a scenario where low levels of trust allow an epidemic to spread, and where the spread of the epidemic reduces trust in government still further, hindering the ability of the authorities to contain future epidemics and address other social problems.”

The paper was authored by Dr Cevat Giray Aksoy, Assistant Professor in Economics at King’s College London and Principal Economist at the EBRD; Professor Barry Eichengreen, from the University of California, Berkeley; and Dr Orkun Saka, Assistant Professor at the University of Sussex and Visiting Fellow at LSE.

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By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Friday, 10 July 2020