San Francisco Chronicle
Australia’s sense of trust credited with saving lives
If the United States had the same COVID death rate as Australia, about 900,000 lives would have been saved. The Texas grandmother who made the perfect pumpkin pie might still be baking. The Red Soxloving husband who ran marathons before COVID might still be cheering at Fenway Park.
For many Americans, imagining what might have been will be painful. But especially now, at the milestone of 1 million deaths in the United States, the nations that did a better job of keeping people alive show what Americans could have done differently and what might still need to change.
Many places provide insight: Japan, Kenya, Norway. But Australia offers perhaps the sharpest comparisons with the American experience. Both countries are English-speaking democracies with similar demographic profiles. In Australia and in the United States, the median age is 38. Roughly 86% of Australians live in urban areas, compared with 83% of Americans.
Yet Australia’s COVID death rate sits at one-tenth of America’s, putting the nation of 25 million people (with around 7,500 deaths) near the top of global rankings in the protection of life.
Australia’s location in the distant Pacific is often cited as the cause for its relative COVID success. That, however, does not fully explain the difference in outcomes between the two countries, since Australia has long been highly connected to the world through trade, tourism and immigration.
So what went right in Australia and wrong in the United States?
It looks obvious: Australia restricted travel and personal interaction until vaccinations were widely available.
But Australia’s COVID playbook produced results because of something more easily felt than analyzed at a news conference. Dozens of interviews, along with survey data and scientific studies from around the world, point to a lifesaving trait that Australians displayed from the top of government to the hospital floor and that Americans have shown they lack: trust, in science and institutions, but especially in one another.
When the pandemic began, 76% of Australians said they trusted the health care system (compared with around 34% of Americans), and 93% of Australians reported being able to get support in times of crisis from people living outside their household.
In global surveys, Australians were more likely than Americans to agree that “most people can be trusted” — a major factor, researchers found, in getting people to change their behavior for the common good to combat COVID, by reducing their movements, wearing masks and getting vaccinated.
Interpersonal trust — a belief that others would do what was right not just for the individual but for the community — saved lives. Trust mattered more than smoking prevalence, health spending or form of government, a study of 177 countries in The Lancet recently found. And in Australia, the process of turning trust into action began early.