Kiwis’ trust in scientists credited with successful handling of COVID-19

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People who trust scientists are more likely to adhere to lockdowns and restrictions to fight the spread of COVID-19 and get vaccinated, a new study has found. 

And of all the countries looked at, New Zealand topped the list for trusting scientists – perhaps not surprising considering the success we’ve had in preventing the spread of the virus, which has killed millions worldwide but just 27 people here. 

Researchers in France looked at ongoing surveys in 12 countries with very different approaches to tackling COVID-19 – Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, the UK and the US.

While some have until recently taken an elimination approach – notably New Zealand and Australia – most have opted for suppression, through a mix of mandatory restrictions and voluntary measures. Countries with a zero-tolerance approach to community transmission have typically used harsh but brief restrictions, accepting short-term pain for long-term gain, and have had fewer deaths and stronger economies as a result. PauseCurrent Time 0:21/Duration 6:58Loaded: 17.22%Unmute0LQCaptionFull screenGovernment hoping to introduce vaccine passports by early November – RobertsonClick to expand

New Zealand has had consistently high trust in both its scientists and the Government, the study – published Tuesday in journal PNAS, – found, with both still up around where they were at the start of the pandemic 18 months ago. The Government has consistently said its approach was science-led, and has recently even given one centre-stage at one of its regular COVID-19 response updates. 

“Though anyone with an unhealthy addiction to TV news would likely think that the US would score lowest on trust in scientists this was not the case – the US sat in the middle of the pack, ahead of France, Brazil and Poland,” said Marc Wilson of Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Psychology, who has surveyed New Zealanders’ attitudes. 

Brazil has had one of the world’s worst outbreaks, partly fuelled by President Jair Bolsonaro’s reluctance to do anything to stop it. While trust in scientists has slipped slightly there, trust in the government is rock bottom. 

“In our own research we find that New Zealanders are both slightly more trusting of scientists and more scientifically literate than Americans,” said Dr Wilson. 

People’s acceptance of basic measures like mask-wearing and vaccines has become highly politicised in the US, but not as much here. The US has lost nearly 700,000 people to COVID-19, despite being one of the richest countries in the world and home to two of the most successful COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers, Pfizer and Moderna. Donald Trump, President when the virus arrived in the US, frequently downplayed its significance and promoted bogus fake cures such as hydroxychloroquine and bleach

“We find that the things that predict trust in scientists differ in strength: distrust in scientists is significantly more strongly associated with politically conservative attitudes and religion in the US, than in New Zealand,” said Dr Wilson, noting that in New Zealand most people believe in evolution and climate change for example, whereas in the US it’s about half-and-half. 

In countries where trust in scientists has fallen over the course of the pandemic, so has the public’s willingness to endure restrictions and other measures to fight the spread of the virus. 

Dr Wilson said related research has found that compared to other nations’ extended lockdown measures, ours last year resulted in “fewer psychological side effects” and “our trust in institutions remained relatively high throughout”.

“My interpretation is, in part, that we benefited from an unambiguous lockdown (less uncertainty than many nations regarding extent and duration), and trusted our medical, scientific and Governmental experts that this was the right thing.”

The study’s authors said the findings show how critical it is the public maintains its trust in scientists, particularly if their government isn’t heeding their advice. 

“In countries where trust in government is low, the independence of scientists and scientific institutions is essential to obtain citizen’s support for measures necessary to protect public health.”

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