The Main Point: Public trust in the WHO matters. Because more than three-quarters of Americans trust the WHO to manage the COVID-19 response, the organization’s scientifically-driven recommendations can change individual behavior despite government noncooperation – so long as it is not dragged into partisan political battles.

This policy memo is part of a series explaining the WHO. Read more here.

The WHO has increasingly come under attack by political actors, especially in the United States. This sentiment reflects a more general trend toward anti-intellectualism and distrust in experts. With the rise in populism and an overflow of accessible news and information, the political clout of experts has seemingly decreased overtime. Thus, as an institution run by health experts, one might expect the WHO to be discounted even in this moment when they should matter most.

Thus far, however, the WHO seems to have retained the public’s confidence. In a study conducted in early March 2020, 77 percent of Americans indicated that they trust the WHO to manage the response to international health outbreaks like coronavirus. In fact, Americans ranked the WHO above all other institutions, including the military, nonprofits and governments. Further, more than three out of every four Americans also trust the WHO to coordinate among other countries to help slow the spread of COVID-19 – again higher than any other institution mentioned. In addition, the public shows widespread support for international cooperation aiming to slow the spread of COVID-19 and the sharing of scientific research among countries – both central tenets of the WHO’s approach.

Not only does the public trust this expert-led global health institution, but Americans also believe that the WHO holds more responsibility than any other governmental or nongovernmental entity for slowing the spread of COVID-19. More than three-quarters of Americans hold this view, ranking the responsibility of the WHO only below that of individuals. Despite arguments about the death of expertise in America, these attitudes toward the WHO seem to align with a more general trend in which Americans express high trust in scientists broadly. People still want experts to guide policies in many domains, and this may be especially true during a global health emergency.

The existence of widespread confidence in experts generally, and in the WHO specifically, is important for a number of reasons. Not the least of these is that institutions like the WHO can be a source of scientifically-driven recommendations for individual citizens to coordinate their response to a public health emergency at a global level, especially when their governments are failing to provide such direction. The importance of this role is particularly evident from how the so-called “ostrich alliance” countries have responded to the coronavirus. The leaders of Brazil, Nicaragua, Belarus, and Turkmenistan have been particularly obtuse in continuing to deny the public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, providing their publics with no leadership, guidance, or precautionary measures to deal with its spread. While these governments dither, their citizens can still turn to the WHO as a trusted source for guidance and information on how to stay safe. If the WHO can get its message out effectively and change individual behavior despite government recalcitrance, it may reduce the negative impact of these governments refusing to abide by crucial policies for keeping the virus in check.

In part for that reason, however, it is dangerous and harmful for the WHO to be dragged into partisan political battles. These perceptions could weaken the institution’s ability to inform the public effectively. The last thing we need is for the WHO and global public health to go the way of climate science and become the next victim of partisan polarization.

For more, read Renu Singh’s blog post at the London School of Economics (May 19, 2020).