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‘Cross-country learning should trump nationalism’ to manage COVID well, new research says

Lack of transparency and mixed messages have fueled popular mistrust.

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European leaders have struggled to control the pandemic effectively and preserve public trust, according to a review of Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom’s response to the COVID-19 crisis published in the open-access journal BMJ Global Health.

The governments of Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all chose different tactics to deal with the pandemic’s initial and second waves in 2020. And the researchers wanted to identify which, if any, of these countries’ tactics performed successfully, in order to better prepare for future crises.

In keeping with a previously published (Blanchet) resilience framework, they focused on disparities in government structures, the role of academics/scientists, and communication with the public—particularly in the face of scientific uncertainty—between all three countries in 2020.

The authors mapped the legitimacy of government and decision-making; the interconnectedness of the community and other players, such as scientists and the media; official messaging; and the ability to deal with uncertainty.

They examined each country’s policy in regard to these elements, using data from government, public health, and mass media websites, as well as published studies.

All three countries recognized the first instances of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19 infection, in January 2020, prompting their initial responses, but they did not respond decisively until community transmission became obvious in early March.

The analysis indicated substantial disparities in responses to pandemic waves 1 and 2, which were linked to pre-existing governmental institutions, academia’s conventional role, crisis management experience, and the transmission of uncertainty—all of which influenced how much people trusted their government.

Germany allowed for quality of academic participation and public debate, but, unlike the United Kingdom, it lacked population-based data on which to make its conclusions. However, the media was ready and able to represent the evolving research as well as the difficulty of translating science into policy.

However, the researchers stress that uncertainty and a lack of knowledge on how to appropriately treat the COVID-19 pandemic—the key feature of the first wave—were only stated clearly in Germany.

Although this made it much easier to adapt messages over time, it overwhelmed the country in the second wave, and the government was strongly criticized as a result.

In Sweden, communicating uncertainty was deemed unsuitable because it could incite fear; other points of view were not heard, and scientists and academics were generally excluded: the government instead assigned pandemic management to its Public Health Agency.

The researchers note that while public trust in Sweden was lower than in the United Kingdom or Germany, this strategy may have inhibited more critical discourse, and it remains to be seen what influence the quasi-abdication of government responsibility will have in the long run.

Academics and scientists in the United Kingdom played a critical role in generating knowledge and pressuring the government to reconsider its policies. However, this resulted in the public being subjected to confused and rapidly shifting public health messaging.

The governments of all three countries have lost the trust of their people. According to the YouGov COVID-19 tracker, people had higher confidence in their governments during the first wave than in the second, with the UK experiencing the sharpest drop in confidence due to a lack of openness in the government’s decision-making process.

“Our hypothesis generating analysis suggests that crisis preparedness and resilience framing will need to encompass those governance structures beyond health that enable (i) strong and legitimate leadership, facilitating decentralised action; and (ii) trusted links to science and advisory bodies. 

“A media structure which is prepared to communicate science and facilitate debate seems to support resilience” the authors concluded, adding: “Cross-country learning should trump nationalism.”

Source: 10.1136/bmjgh-2021-006691

Image Credit: Getty

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