The effectiveness of institutions depends crucially on the trust they have within the general population. If an institution is not trusted, it is likely that the measures and policies it introduces will not work. Individuals will try to avoid compliance and instead act in a way that conforms better to their beliefs. In a pandemic, this kind of situation is particularly challenging as it would lengthen the medical emergency and result in severe negative economic and social impacts.
Understanding the degree of trust in institutions has therefore become very important in the last months. In April 2020, Eurofound, the European Union’s research agency, started a large-scale online survey to investigate COVID-19’s impact on factors such as well-being, work conditions and households’ financial situation. The report on the latest wave of the survey concluded that “in the first stage of the pandemic, overall trust in institutions remained relatively stable or even increased (in the case of trust in the EU) but by the third round of the e-survey a decline is noticeable”.
Across Europe trust in Government has declined significantly. The Maltese Government retained a trust well above the EU average. This probably reflects the success of the Government’s economic response. In fact, the proportion of respondents in Malta who said they lost their job was half that in the rest of Europe. Similarly, Malta features among the bottom five in terms of countries where people felt that their medical needs were not fulfilled.
In fact, the proportion of Maltese respondents who were positive about the pandemic support measures introduced by the Government was the second highest in the EU. In Germany only 5% felt that that support was reaching those who need it most, while in Malta the proportion was nearly seven times higher and was the highest in Europe. The proportion of Maltese who said they could not make ends meet is half that in Greece and are amongst the most optimistic across countries.
In Germany only 5% felt that support was reaching those who need it most, while in Malta the proportion was nearly seven times higher and was the highest in Europe.
Another source of information on the degree of trust in institutions is the Eurobarometer. The latter is a survey regularly carried out by the European Commission twice every year since the early 1970s. Since the early 2000s this survey started to also cover the Maltese population. Besides covering periods before the pandemic, the Eurobarometer is carried out in a more scientific way than the Eurofound study.
The latest Eurobarometer indicates that health staff in Malta are trusted by 85% of respondents, as against 80% in Europe. The second-most trusted institution is the armed forces, which enjoy the trust of 71% of the Maltese public, a similar proportion to the rest of Europe. Though less trusted than in other countries, the police in Malta are the third-most trusted institution. On the other hand, the Government and Parliament are much more trusted in Malta than it is in the rest of the European Union. Conversely while 51% of Europeans trust the written media (newspapers), in Malta just 44% trust them. The Maltese seem to be more trusting of radio and tv as a source of information. Social media is the least trusted source, though still more than in the rest of Europe.
Written media in Malta appears to have a significant trust issue. In fact, according to the Eurobarometer only 4% of Maltese respondents say they believe written media “definitely provide” trustworthy information. This is the worst result in all of Europe.
That said, the latest Eurobarometer includes some good news for media houses in Malta. As can be seen in the table below, trust in written media jumped substantially from the results a year earlier, which had marked somewhat of a low point, with trust in the written media having fallen to levels only marginally above those in social media.
This probably reflects the fact that around the time when the latest Eurobarometer was being held, many media houses had adopted a strong stance in favour of the introduction of restrictive measures to counter a surge in COVID-19 cases. This was very much in line with the desires of the general population, and possibly explains why trust in the written media is now significantly higher than it was even a decade ago. Trust in institutions appears to have risen across the board in the last decade. This is especially the case for the Government which a decade ago was one the least trusted institutions in Malta, even below the written media.