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Trust and Public Policy: Lessons from the Pandemic

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Part of the India Studies in Business and Economics book series (ISBE)


This paper examines the importance of mutual confidence or trust between a government and its citizens on the effectiveness of public policies. We develop a theoretical framework where the designing of government policies and the concomitant actions of the citizens are meditated by the degree of social trust. We introduce a short-term aggregative health shock—a pandemic—which is novel: its characteristics are not fully known at the onset. This creates scope for government intervention in the form of framing the policy announcement and its information content. We use this framework to examine the relationship between government communication, social trust and compliance. For any given level of trust, we analyse the equilibrium framing of the policy as well as the corresponding response and examine the degree of policy effectiveness as a function of the existing level of trust.


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Trust is the foundation upon which the legitimacy of democratic institutions rests. Public trust helps governments govern on a daily basis and respond to the major challenges of today and tomorrow. —‘Building Trust to Reinforce Democracy’ , OECD Report, 2022.

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  1. 1.

    Algan and Cahuc (2014).

  2. 2.

    Dearmona and Grier (2009) provide strong empirical support for a positive relationship between trust and economic growth using panel data for 51 countries. Also, see Algan and Cahuc (2014) for a comprehensive survey.

  3. 3.

    See Desai (2020).

  4. 4.

    For example, the state of Uttar Pradesh passed an ordinance in May 2020 that made hiding coronavirus infection a crime with a jail term of one to three years and a hefty fine of Rs 10000–Rs 10 lakh. For details, see Sharma (2020).

  5. 5.

    See here:

  6. 6.

    This could be interpreted as an epidemiological shock arising out of the novel coronavirus.

  7. 7.

    In this context it is worth a mention that Kerala, despite having the largest minority concentrations of Christians and Muslims than any other Indian state (each group roughly representing 20% of the population), has rarely seen a communal conflict in the post-independence era. See Heller (2020) for elaboration.

  8. 8.

    Many studies found that community mask adherence and community attitudes towards masks were associated with a substantive reduction in COVID-19 cases and deaths. See for example, Adjodah et al. (2021).

  9. 9.

    The assumption that everybody following the COVID protocols can reduce the effective health hazard of a pandemic to zero—irrespective of its intensity—is of course an exaggeration. However, there is no doubt that a coordinated effort by all agents in the community can greatly reduce the risk of infection. The qualitative results of our model will not change even if we allow a small percentage of transmission possibility when everybody is masked.

  10. 10.

    Similar distinction is also made between trust within a close group such as family and clan on one hand, and within ties outside—as they have different implications. See Banfield (1958).

  11. 11.

    In this context, one might recall the Swedish experiment. In February 2020, as COVID-19 had begun sweeping across Europe leading to a complete shutdown of many countries, Sweden remained open. The country’s approach at that time was controversial. Although the death rate from COVID-19 did go up sharply in Sweden, some have argued that compared to other countries in Europe, it was not the worst off. For example, It was not as bad as Italy, Spain, the U.K. and Belgium. According to Pickett (2021), the Swedish Government allowed for small liberties such as going to restaurants, bars and parties, which made the government appear quite permissive. Staying at home was optional rather than mandatory, but mobility data from cell phones show that Swedes did significantly reduce their movement. This seems to support our hypothesis that a trusting population will respond favourably to the permissive policy of the government on their own, making coercive policies such as a lockdown redundant.

  12. 12.

    Public authorities suppressing information at the time of COVID was not uncommon at all, although in most of these cases, the governments were accused of under-reporting rather than over-reporting the intensity of the disease. For example, Nayanan (2021) writes: ‘Over a year of the pandemic, the Indian government’s communication has been marked by mixed messaging, the downplaying of potential threats, grandstanding on the administration’s handling of the crisis and a reluctance to share information’. More recently, WHO officials complained that China’s COVID-19 data does not convey an accurate picture of the situation there and underplays the impact of the disease. See here:

  13. 13.

    This assumption is not very outlandish. Over time, as more information about COVID-19 became available, both the WHO and state officials changed their directives multiple times. Moreover, the virus mutated many times, making the previous prediction about its infectivity and potency invalid.


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Correspondence to Mausumi Das .

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© 2023 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd.

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Das, M., Mishra, A. (2023). Trust and Public Policy: Lessons from the Pandemic. In: Gupta, I., Das, M. (eds) Contextualizing the COVID Pandemic in India. India Studies in Business and Economics. Springer, Singapore.

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  • Publisher Name: Springer, Singapore

  • Print ISBN: 978-981-99-4905-2

  • Online ISBN: 978-981-99-4906-9

  • eBook Packages: Economics and FinanceEconomics and Finance (R0)

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