Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation hit the nail on the head recently when he claimed that “Everything about the pandemic is about trust.” Social science has long pointed to trust as a fundamentally important force in economic and social interactions. Without trust, people find it harder to work together to solve problems and contribute to public goods. This is why the recent allegations of vaccine queue jumping, a very Irish form of COVID-cronyism, are so worrying.
Politicians and senior servants have spoken about how the allegations of favouritism in the allocation of publicly owned life saving resources at the Beacon hospital would represent actions that are unacceptable and upsetting. However, the real danger is that such actions would be viewed by the public as acts of corruption.
Letting family or powerful friends and acquaintances jump the established vaccination order (in favour of the social pecking order) may not fit the legal definition of corruption under Irish law, but it would arguably fit the conceptual framework laid out by Transparency International – the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.
Social scientists recognise that private gain does not have to be a brown envelope or a percentage on a deal. Indeed the recent Hamilton Report into Ireland’s anticorruption regime recommended that a broader understanding of corruption is needed and should include “preferential treatment based on a person’s identity, and the improper use of influence.”
Control of a supply of publicly owned vaccine means you have been entrusted with public power. Abusing that public power for private gain (be it financial, the expectation of reciprocal favours, or just the warm glow of helping a friend) is something that would be viewed by many as corrupt.
Let’s assume that the public would see it that way. What are the implications?
Corruption is, not surprisingly, utterly destructive of trust. In particular, in studies conducted around the world we can see that trust in government and civil servants is significantly lower in those who believe that corruption is widespread or who have a first-hand experience of corruption.
A loss of trust in government, or in the state itself, opens up the door to populism but a more pressing concern is that we also know that a lack of trust predicts lower compliance with public health advice and legal requirements.
A lack of trust in government is one of the key drivers of vaccine hesitancy – a finding that should be foremost in the minds of policymakers as they struggle to get public buy-in for the next stage of the battle against COVID-19.
Work carried out in Liberia and the DRC on behaviour during Ebola outbreaks concludes that low trust individuals were less likely to adopt public health advice such as washing hands, social distancing and safe burial of victims. It is important to point out that this is not just an African phenomenon or something unique to Ebola. Similar results have been found in other countries and health contexts.
Indeed we already have evidence of similar effects in the context of COVID-19. Recent work from DCU’s Anti-Corruption Research Centre and partners in Illinois State University uses US cell-phone data to show that compliance with “Shelter in Place” orders (i.e. lockdown) was lower in more corrupt states.
What is going on here? One reason we see these results is that if you don’t trust the state or its agents you are less likely to think that they have your best interests at heart or that they know what they are talking about. There is a reason that conspiracy theorists and populists often frame their worldview as a fight against corruption.
However, there is a more subtle process at play. Social psychology argues that there will be higher levels of compliance with rules and laws that are viewed as legitimate, even when there is little chance of violations being punished. A state that is not playing by the established rules, or is allowing its agents or an elite to flaunt its mandated processes, will inevitably lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
COVID-19 rules are a perfect example of a situation where voluntary compliance is key. There is relatively little chance of being punished if you stray more than 5K from your home. There is no chance of being punished if you don’t wash your hands or wear a mask when you go for a walk in a busy area.
If we want to keep compliance high, or at least stop it from collapsing altogether, we need to ensure that there are no more cases of COVID-cronyism. Such behaviours will cost lives by destroying trust and perceptions of legitimacy and thereby reducing compliance with public health advice. Simply put, corruption kills. The only treatment is a cocktail of accountability and transparency.
Dr Robert Gillanders is an Associate Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the DCU Anti-Corruption Research Centre.
Read Rob’s full bio https://business.dcu.ie/staff/dr-robert-gillanders/
Find out more about the DCU Anti-Corruption Research Centre at https://www.dcu.ie/arc