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The pandemic and its implications on trust

22 February 2022

Sweden has one of the highest trust levels in the world. At a recent policy seminar, research on how the pandemic has affected trust levels in Sweden was presented.

The focus was also on how the high trust levels have affected pandemic policy. Erik Wengström, University of Lund, presented several studies, mostly conducted by himself in cooperation with various co-authors, showing, e.g., that trust increases the willingness to follow recommendations and rules concerning behavior during the pandemic; that trust increases the likelihood of getting vaccinated; trust is the strongest predictor for agreeing that Sweden has acted forcefully enough with restrictions; social trust has not changed very much at all during the pandemic; trust in the Public Health Agency has decreased somewhat but has been stable from 2021 (about 70% say they trust this Agency, in charge of much of pandemic policy in Sweden).

Niclas Berggren then explained why economists take an interest in trust – because it facilitates human interaction and exchange, leading to greater investment and economic growth. But he also stressed that trust is valuable for affecting behavior in other areas, such as health, and presented three studies: one showing that trust is negatively related to Covid cases per capita and vaccine uptake; one showing that Swedes’ trust in government led them not to wear masks (since masks were never really recommended, and never required) but to wash their hands more, indicating that they are willing to go along with what the government asks them to do; and one study showing that trust in scientists is positive for supporting and following rules and regulations. He closed with two questions: If high trust explains the relatively “free” policy approach of Sweden, why did the other Nordic countries, with equally high trust levels, choose more restrictive policies? And can trust be negative sometimes, if it implies “blind obedience” to authority?

The panel then discussed the two talks and added perspectives from their own fields of activity. For example, Maja Fjaestad, representing the government, defended the Swedish approach and stressed that even Swedish legislation in this area reflects trust: there are not many forceful restriction options available (a state of emergency is only possible in a war, for instance). Marika Markovits talked about her experience of the pandemic as a priest and noted that trust is very strong as a concept and phenomenon in Christianity: trusting God and your fellow man is at the heart of its message. However, she had noted polarization on pandemic policy in society and worried that isolation caused people to turn to social media and “alternative news” sources to a larger degree, but thought that the Church and other organizations in civil society, by bringing people together, could counteract that. Gina Gustavsson thought the Swedish pandemic response had been too lax and though Swedes trusted especially the government and the authorities too much. 

This policy seminar was a part of the research project Cultures of Trust and Institutions of Freedom, conducted by Niclas Berggren and Christian Bjørnskov and funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Watch a recording of the seminar ( in Swedish) here: