Behind the headlines, profound shifts in people’s sense of stability are playing out.  There is now evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing people to reorder their priorities and weigh hard trade-offs around sensitive topics like privacy, in favor of health and safety. 

There is evidence, too, we may be witnessing a reordering of society, one in which collective needs will be valued over individual gains. And while it remains too soon to declare the durability of these shifts, they could conceivably lead to a new social contract for people, business, and government.

Such are the findings of Edelman’s latest 2020 Trust Barometer Spring Update: Trust and the Covid-19 Pandemic. Our latest report, in the middle of the crisis, surveyed public trust in Government, Business, Media, and NGOs, in more than 13,200 respondents in 11 markets.

The findings suggest that leaders, whether in business or government, are falling short of expectations in how they are responding to the pandemic.  But in almost all countries, with Japan as an outlier, people clearly trust government more than business to determine how best to manage the recovery.  In fact, overall trust in government is up 11 points from our last study (January 2020) to 65%.

China is up 5 points to 95%, India has risen 6 points to 87%, and South Korea is up an astounding 16 points to 67%.  Overwhelmingly, respondents want government to lead in all areas of the pandemic response from ending the health crisis to economic support to keeping us informed with accurate and reliable information.

On questions of ability to look after their people, Asian governments are largely getting high marks. While globally, only 42% believe their governments are ensuring medical supplies and good treatment are available even in the poorest areas, in India that figure is 68% and in South Korea it is 52%.

And, perhaps, as a result, the Asian public has signalled a higher willingness than other regions to trade off increased surveillance in the name of public safety, especially in China and India.

On the other hand, business leaders around the world are falling short.  Fewer than a third of respondents believe CEOs have done an outstanding job when it comes to effectively meeting the demands placed on them by the pandemic. Fewer than half give them good marks on protecting employees or ensuring the products people need are readily available.

None of this is to suggest that people do not have increased fears about the long-term impact of the coronavirus.  In China, 79% of people say that they are worried about losing their jobs and not being able to find a new one, and in India and South Korea approximately 6 in 10 share that anxiety. These concerns eclipse the global average of 48%. And China leads the list of countries concerned about the unfair burden those with lower incomes and few resources are facing as a result of this pandemic.

Given the underlying inequality issues that remain unresolved globally, these cannot continue to go unaddressed in government and business response plans.

On nearly every data point, Japan is an outlier. It is the only market in our sampling where trust has dipped since January. Japan was under the microscope early as a result of the Diamond Princess cruise ship stranded in the port of Yokohama, which was followed by a seemingly delayed decision to impose a state of emergency.

Those in Japan may have heightened expectations, but those also come with certain caveats. Japan’s appetite for surveillance, for example, is the lowest in our sample at 44%. One area where Japan may be aligned with global expectations is the support for continued government stimulus to fight the effects of the virus, even if that ultimately results in higher taxes. In Japan, 68% align on the need for this kind of stimulus, which is broadly in line with the global average of 61%.

We have studied the dynamics of trust for the past two decades, and know it is hard-won and easily lost. It is clear this new level of trust carries enormous expectations of both governments and business to do whatever it takes to solve this crisis as well as build a more resilient system to meet the challenges of future pandemics. But I would argue that the reordering of priorities indicates something bigger is at stake.

We may be experiencing the early stages of a realignment of the relative importance which brands hold in the minds of consumers. If that is the case, then brands will quickly need to adapt the way they communicate their value to reflect the changes in both behaviors and consumption patterns. Those who succeed will be those perceived to have adjusted their value proposition to show consumers they’re delivering on a social contract centered around family and community. 

The same is true for governments. Regardless of whether trust has flourished, as it has in South Korea, or floundered, as is the case in Japan, governments are going to want to emerge from the pandemic stronger and with more support than they entered. There is little room for missteps, and it is a fine balance. Do too little and governments will be accused of malfeasance; too much and they’ll be accused of exaggeration.

It is chiefly government’s job to get us through this initial phase. Expectations, while higher for government in a climate of fear, are clearly moving in one direction for every institution, upwards. While it remains to be seen how durable these shifts will be, it will take joint efforts from business, government, civil society, and the media to move us into recovery and beyond.


Stephen Kehoe is CEO of Edelman Asia Pacific. The Edelman Trust Barometer can be found here.