This is part of our Coronavirus Update series in which Harvard specialists in epidemiology, infectious disease, economics, politics, and other disciplines offer insights into what the latest developments in the COVID-19 outbreak may bring.
Harvard researchers who learned hard lessons about distrust of health authorities during the recent Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are turning their eyes to the coronavirus pandemic, examining whether public trust — or lack thereof — translates into individuals following government health directives.
With no effective treatment and the development of a vaccine still a year or so away, the public’s willingness to follow social distancing and other guidelines may be the most powerful tool remaining in the public health arsenal, according to Phuong Pham and Patrick Vinck, researchers at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. And that willingness depends to a large extent on trust.
“There’s no vaccine and no prospective antiviral treatments for COVID-19 right now. The only interventions we have left are social-behavioral, so understanding people’s knowledge, perception, and their willingness to adhere to some of the recommendations and other social behavior interventions is really important,” said Pham, an assistant professor at both Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is also the director of HHI’s Program on Evaluation and Implementation Science.
To better understand how the public is receiving information from health and governmental authorities, Pham and Vinck devised an online survey that asks a series of questions about where people get their information, how much they trust it, their view of the ability of government and health authorities to handle the coronavirus outbreak, and whether they follow the advice they’re given.
The survey, which is ongoing, went live this month and has garnered nearly 7,000 responses from 141 countries so far. It has been translated into 16 languages, mainly by volunteers who have taken the survey and offered to translate it themselves. Data is displayed on the website in near-real time, offering a view of how effective public health messaging has been to survey takers.
The survey dashboard is relatively simple, with a map of the world showing the countries from which responses are coming. The U.S., with 3,308 responses as of Monday morning, has the most representation, but responses have also been logged from such far-flung places as East Timor, South Africa, Iceland, and Chile. A click on the “navigate” button displays a menu from which to view responses, and a click on “authority abilities” shows that just shy of 69 percent of respondents have little or no confidence in authorities’ ability to handle the pandemic.
The good news, however, is that respondents show a lot of confidence in the information they’re getting, with the majority confident that they can protect themselves from the pandemic.
“We can see that, in terms of preparedness behavior, they’re adhering to most of the major messages around washing hands and keeping distance and preparing their supplies. They’re willing to self-isolate and report,” Pham said. “I think the most damning data is around trust in the ability of the health services and the authorities to control the epidemic. The level of confidence is pretty low.”