People in most of 25 countries around the world think governments and leaders failed to respond either well or fast enough to the coronavirus crisis, a new global survey shows.

YouGov’s globalism survey of about 26,000 people in countries from Australia to Sweden, designed with the Guardian and carried out by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project between July and August, before the second wave hit in Europe and elsewhere, showed striking variations in approval for governments’ handling of the pandemic, which has killed nearly 1.1 million people.

A record four in five respondents in Denmark, which locked down very early in March as the first wave hit and has managed to limit Covid deaths to 119 per million inhabitants, thought their government had done very or fairly well.

Australia and Greece, with death tolls per million of just 35 and 51, also recorded approval levels higher than 70%, while 67% of respondents in Germany – with a death rate the same as Denmark’s – said they thought Angela Merkel’s government had handled the crisis very or fairly well.

At the other end of the scale, only 34% of people surveyed in the US, 36% in Spain, 37% in France and 39% in the UK and Brazil thought their governments had performed well. Death tolls in these countries are among the highest in the world: 686 per million in the US, 735 in Spain, 521 in France, 649 in the UK and 730 in Brazil.

There were significant anomalies, however. Fully 58% of respondents in Italy and 54% in Sweden – both of which have also suffered very high death rates, of 676 and 586 per million – were nonetheless confident that their governments had handled the pandemic very or fairly well.

In Italy, analysts say, that may be partly explained by the remarkable personal popularity of Giuseppe Conte, whom polls show to be the most trusted Italian politician in years: 61% of respondents approved of the prime minister’s Covid performance.

In Sweden, separate YouGov polling suggests 65% of people have a favourable opinion of the chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, the architect of the country’s light-touch, anti-lockdown strategy, while 69% said they were very or fairly confident in the national health agency.

Strikingly, the lowest government approval rating was in Japan, which has one of the world’s lowest coronavirus death rates – just 13 deaths per million inhabitants. Only 21% of Japanese respondents said they felt their government had handled the crisis very or fairly well.

Observers suggest this may reflect dissatisfaction with the government’s early response (many felt it was reluctant to take action as long as the summer Olympics were still theoretically possible), combined with a popular belief that Japan’s success in avoiding mass infections and a high death rate may be due more to the good sense and compliance of ordinary people than to government directives.

The Japanese government’s record low approval rating does not, at any rate, appear to reflect what Christian Drosten, the chief virologist of Berlin’s Charité hospital and one of Germany’s leading experts on the pandemic, has called the “prevention paradox”: if your strategy works, people tend to think it was probably unnecessary.

Despite strict lockdowns in many countries this spring, only in South Africa and Greece did more than 50% feel freedoms had been excessively curtailed, and nowhere was there a majority for the view that the government was placing too much weight on curbing the spread of the virus rather than allowing normal life to continue.

The majority of those surveyed thought the Chinese government was too slow to act, and citizens of 16 of the 25 countries – including Spain, Britain, France, Brazil, Sweden, Italy, Australia, the US and Japan – thought the spread of virus in their countries could have been prevented if their own government had responded differently.

The survey found generally strong support for wearing face masks in enclosed public spaces such as shops, airports, on public transport and in medical facilities – one of the more contentious measures imposed or strongly advised by many governments as the pandemic has progressed.

Scepticism – sometimes virulent – remains, however, despite studies showing that triple-layer cloth masks filter about 60% of the the droplets that may contain the virus from the air as the wearer breathes, and medical masks more than 85%.

Respondents in Sweden, where masks are still not advised by the national health agency (“We prefer half-empty buses than full buses with face masks,” Tegnell has said), and Denmark, where masks are mandatory only on public transport, when standing in bars and restaurants and in healthcare situations, were the most doubtful.

Forty percent of Swedes thought that masks were not at all or not very effective in shops, along with 27% of Danes. Only 35% of Swedes and 45% of Danes believed face coverings should be compulsory by law inside shops, compared with far higher numbers elsewhere: 90% in Brazil and Spain, 87% in Italy, 86% in France and 76% in the UK.

More than 65% of Swedes and 62% of Danes, along with 63% of Germans and 55% of British respondents, said wearing a face mask on the street would not be effective in controlling the spread of the virus, while support for making masks compulsory on the street barely reached double figures in those countries.

By contrast, people in countries where the pandemic hit hard during the first wave and where masks are already obligatory in many settings were much more likely to say the use of face masks in public places was very or fairly effective.

In Spain, Brazil, Italy and Mexico, overwhelming majorities of respondents said masks could help stopping the spread of the virus in all indoor public spaces, while 65% of Spaniards said they supported masks being mandatory in the street – as they already are in outdoor and enclosed spaces across the country.

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