A country paralyzed. A booming economy about to crash. Citizens afraid of an enemy they can’t see, hear or smell. The coronavirus has captured the world. Life as we have known it has stopped abruptly.
As of March 29, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported some 693,000 infection cases and nearly 30,000 deaths worldwide as a result of the pandemic for which there seems to be no end in sight any time soon.
In the United States, the number of infections is close to 150,000 with the death toll approaching 2,500. Faced with the grim prospect that more than 200,000 Americans could die even with aggressive action to slow the spread of the virus, the Trump Administration extended guidelines for social distancing, tele-working and refraining from non-essential travel for another month until April 30, 2020.
Ever since the outbreak of the virus in early December 2019, government leaders face anew the age-old “security versus freedom” dilemma, having to make decisions about the extent to which to curb individual rights, liberties and freedoms in order to ensure public safety and security. But it is not only the physical security of each citizen, our political leaders have to be concerned about. Sheltering in place and reducing social interactions can also bring the economy to a shrieking halt, causing unemployment to explode and jeopardizing the survival of many small businesses.
The nature and rapid spread of the virus demands a concerted, coordinated and collaborative response where governments, businesses and individual citizens pull together and cooperate to effectively control the greatest public health crisis in a century.
On March 27, along with one of my PhD students, I conducted a nationwide online survey of 445 Americans and asked them how much they trusted the government and their neighbors to “get through the current public health crisis.” Slightly more than half of respondents said they trusted the federal (52.6%) and their local (54.8%) government to address the crisis (24.7% and 18.4% distrust respectively). Given confusing and sometimes contradictory information provided by the White House, especially in the early days of the outbreak and the fact that specific implementation decisions are made at the local level, this result is not surprising, although one would hope for higher levels of trust in a crisis that can only be addressed at the government level. When it comes to trusting others, more than half of respondents (56.1%) said they trusted “their neighbors to do what’s necessary to get through the current public health crisis” (16.2% distrust).
These findings remind us that when levels of trust in each other and in those we elect to ensure our safety and security are much lower than what they ought to be, we face not just a health crisis but also a democratic and a human connection crisis.
Local and state governments and the federal government are leveraging different strategies to combat the spread and effect of the virus, from social distancing to complete community lock downs. What all these strategies have in common is that public trust and immediate responsiveness is necessary for them to succeed. In a crisis that unfolds rapidly, that affects everybody, that requires fast and broad cooperation and that only governments can address, the results of our survey raise concern.
Public trust cannot be built overnight. It is a long process where those we entrust with our safety and security need to show concern and compassion for the interests, hopes and fears of the many and not just the few that fund their elections.
As horrible as this crisis is, and we cannot yet accurately predict its magnitude, it ought to be a wake-up call for us to come together and use this shared experience to rebuild a social fabric that has been torn by partisanship and self-indulgence. In the end, the virus that keeps us apart may actually bring us together.