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How Italy's International Interventions Shaped Crisis Management During COVID-19

What Italy's experience with the Covid-19 pandemic can teach us.

marble statue of a male with a modern day face mask

Trust in international organizations has been a much discussed topic in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic has also unleashed significant research into various dynamics of trust in

public institutions and science. A recent study which demonstrates that Italians experienced an unexpected 'trust boom' in their national institutions at the start of the Covid pandemic provides potential insights also for crisis management interventions by international organizations.

From 9-14 March 2020, researchers surveyed over 4,000 Italians to gauge their trust in their public institution's ability to intervene effectively in the pandemic, and whether the widespread distrust Italians have in public institutions would be reinforced or might change as a result of the pandemic. This was at at time when Italy had the most active Covid-19 outbreak in the world and the extreme prevention measures instituted by the government were still relatively new and evolving.

The majority of respondents to the survey indicated that they had extreme or high levels of trust in their national authorities ability and intent to manage the Covid-19 crisis. This was particularly surprising given that many international studies of trust in government have indicated that Italians have some of the lowest level of trust in government and politicians in Europe. A 2018 report found that Italians’ trust in the national government has been declining in the last few decades and is below 20% (Eurofound (2018). Societal Change and Trust in Institutions. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union). Thus, when more than 75% of survey respondents indicated they trusted the national authorities to handle the pandemic effectively, it highlighted an anomalous "trust boom"and illustrated that distrust in institutions can change surprisingly quickly in a crisis.

This evidence of an unexpected trust boom in Italy provides an interesting topic for further research in relation to how international interventions can potentially engender a trust boom in societies in crisis. In the Italian case study, researchers highlight that theoretical models of trust indicate when people choose not to trust, it is because they have an alternative option, such as doing the task themselves, or they decide to give up on the goal entirely. Covid-19 created a crisis in which Italians had no choice but to trust public institutions, as there was no alternative, nor were they willing to forsake the goal of managing the pandemic. Perhaps to justify their own cognitive dissonance in trusting the same institutions they mistrusted for so long, the public afforded the national authorities a kind of 'trust credit' at the beginning of the crisis while monitoring how that trust credit was used.

This situation seems analogous to when an international intervention such as a peacekeeping operation is agreed to by parties in a civil conflict, for instance. The parties, the public and the international community, in the absence of any other option, choose to trust an international organization to support implementation of a peace agreement, thereby giving a trust credit specific to that particular crisis. We suggest this would be a valuable topic for further research, with a particular focus on examples of how international interventions have benefited and maintained that trust credit, or lost it.

For policymakers in international organizations, it would be important to consider whether the organizations they set up for such international interventions are adequately structured and managed to consistently capitalize on any potential trust boom at the start of that intervention. Is the organization capable of achieving its mandate? Can it project that capability, and does it have the communication processes in place to explain that? Are the management systems in place to ensure it's staff understand the mandate, how they individually contribute to that mandate and the deliver on those results? Are administrative processes in place to address misconduct or other actions that can create mistrust with beneficiaries and stakeholders?

To find out more about this case study, access:

Falcone, Rino et al. "All We Need Is Trust: How the COVID-19 Outbreak Reconfigured Trust in Italian Public Institutions." Frontiers in Psychology (October 2020) DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.561747


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