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Increasing trust in Covid communication

Rohan Fox
Rohan Fox - "For many Papua New Guineans, sharing stories told by friends, family or local Christian leaders may be received as most trustworthy"

| DevPolicy Blog | Edited extracts

WAIGANI – In May this year 281 students in the School of Business and Public Policy at the University of Papua New Guinea were surveyed about their attitudes to Covid-19 vaccination.

Of this number, 46% had not decided whether they would like to be vaccinated. Just 6% said they would, while 48% were against vaccination.

Many students noted that they wanted more information on Covid-19, vaccinations, risks and side effects.

In order to make informed choices, people need access to information that is not only accurate, but comes from trusted sources.

Although the UPNG respondents are young, and not in the at-risk cohort, their views on Covid-19 and trust are still informative.

So we asked them to rank a number of sources from ‘strongly distrust’ to ‘strongly trust’, based on how confident they would be to use information they received on Covid-19 from those sources.

From their answers, we created a measure of net trust: the percentage who said they trusted or strongly trusted information from a particular source, minus the percentage of students who said they distrusted or strongly distrusted information from that source.

Net trust in various sources of Covid vaccine information in PNGJack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in an article, The 3 Elements of Trust, suggest there are three key determinants of trust – (positive) relationships, expertise and consistency.

The UPNG students’ responses showed that international institutions and experts were both some of the most-trusted and least-trusted sources, based on whether they had PNG experience or not.

The students surveyed were taught by Australian and foreign lecturers under the UPNG–ANU partnership. For this reason, their trust of international institutions may be higher than other UPNG students, or the rest of the PNG population.

The figure below shows the responses for the World Health Organisation (one of the most-trusted organisations) and social media (the least-trusted source).

Trust in the World Health Organisation and social mediaTwice as many respondents agreed they ‘trust’ or ‘strongly trust’ WHO than trust social media, but both had a large share of neutral responses.

The data shows that distrust of institutions of authority and vaccine hesitance go together.

There may be various legitimate reasons to distrust authority. In PNG, many people are aware of corruption that occurs within institutions of authority.

In the US, Black Americans express higher than average vaccine hesitancy and higher institutional distrust. Some note past unethical treatment by medical authorities.

For many individuals, sharing stories from within a person’s own community can be more persuasive than appeals to ‘authoritative’ facts.

While a lack of trust in authority is certainly not the only factor at-play, many respondents noted the lack of stories they had heard from their own community or wider PNG on the personal impact of Covid-19 or vaccines.

For many Papua New Guineans, sharing stories told by friends, family or local Christian leaders may be received as most trustworthy.

While average trust in most sources of information is ‘neutral’, the survey does show that many students value the expertise of institutions like WHO.

As such, a combination of approaches may be the most successful in demonstrating trustworthiness and spreading accurate information on Covid-19 and vaccination.

Telling more Papua New Guinean stories along with sharing the latest data and facts from people with expertise (and ideally local knowledge) may optimise health outcomes.

Rohan Fox works at the Development Policy Centre of the Australian National University where he conducts research on the Papua New Guinea economy, trade and exchange rate issues and assists the University of PNG in research, curriculum and outreach


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Bernard Corden

Cialdini's six principles of persuasion are also pretty useful:


These were a precursor to behavioural economics or nudge theory although it often degenerates into sludge theory with sinister outcomes.

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