Argument

The Secret to Coronavirus Success Is Trust

Destructive partisan divides and mistrust of government will hamper U.S. efforts.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force in Washington on April 13. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Americans are suddenly taking a greater interest in the world around them. Folks who couldn’t spot Wuhan, Qom, or Lombardy on a map two months ago now discuss the coronavirus responses there. Meanwhile, they anxiously check for updated statistics on the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Looking at different countries, comparing their public health systems and responses, and measuring their outcomes against the United States’ is an exercise in comparative public policy that’s become a daily norm in the coronavirus era. South Korea pioneered drive-through coronavirus testing. That seemed like an effective idea, so now drive-through clinics are everywhere. Those Asian and European countries where mask-wearing is obligatory seemed to have lower rates of spread, so now Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy encourages widespread mask-wearing, too. And, of course, the pandemic is exposing many of the flaws and vulnerabilities of the American for-profit health care system, as compared to universal health care systems across the developed world.

Tests, clinics, masks, and respirators are all tangible things that we can observe and measure. But like the invisible coronavirus itself, perhaps the most important determinant of the success of a country’s response is something that isn’t so easily seen: trust.

High levels of trust seem to be a common feature of countries with the most effective coronavirus responses, measured by slow spread and low mortality. Singapore’s successes have been chalked up to “an effective government-led response, trust in authorities and regular communication.” They’re not alone. “Taiwan does have one ace up its sleeve,” writes Nick Aspinwall here in Foreign Policy: “trust.” Government transparency, competence, and experience with the SARS epidemic have bolstered trust in government. In South Korea, the government “says the public is more likely to trust it if it releases transparent and accurate information,” Nature reports. More succinctly: Government competence breeds trust.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

While the world wonders whether to trust the coronavirus numbers coming out of China, we ignore the more important role of Chinese trust in their own government’s response. While China’s high trust in government has been hotly contested, the early prognostications that the coronavirus would “topple” or “derail” the Chinese Communist Party seem to have come to naught. If anything, China’s competent—if heavy-handed—response seems to have both benefited from and bolstered Chinese trust in government. More than 80 percent of respondents in China and almost 65 percent in South Korea say they trust their government to care for their health. In the United States, it’s only 44 percent.

But it is not just trust in government that’s at issue: It’s trust in each other. We watch with nervous wonder: How can countries such as South Korea, Iceland, and Sweden institute voluntary (rather than mandatory) restrictions, and still keep most businesses and schools open? The common denominator in each is not simply a developed, well-functioning, competent welfare state, but also a broad sense of societal trust that others will act responsibly, too: that they’ll self-isolate and look out for one another as much as they look out for themselves. Is it any wonder, then, that the countries doing the best in terms of coronavirus mitigation are the ones that constantly rank highest in terms of political and social trust, even well before the current crisis?

From the United States—where individuals, communities, and states have largely been left to forage for themselves—such trust in government and each other seems downright otherworldly. While jokes about shortages of toilet paper abound, there’s no better symbol of American insecurity, fear, and mistrust than Americans stockpiling guns and ammunition. Both physically and psychologically, you only need an arsenal of weaponry to defend against your fellow man if you deeply distrust him.

The United States is experiencing a deficit of trust, and it is quite literally killing people.

That the Trump administration is beset by a crisis of confidence—in which very little that is said in the daily briefings can be trusted as factually accurate, and alarmingly few Americans trust President Donald Trump to handle the outbreak—is nothing new. It is just the tragic outcome of a situation in which the narrative is more important than reality, and politically inconvenient truths can be brushed away with “fake news” accusations and untrue “alternative facts.” It’s worth noting surveys that show the most trusted leaders in the current crisis are not Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seen as a teller of unvarnished truths, and the administration’s infectious-disease experts, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, though Fauci already appears to be on his way out of Trump’s White House. In this time of crisis, transparency, responsibility, and facts—however unpleasant—breed greater trust than obfuscation, denial, deflection, and soothing half-truths.

But my point isn’t narrowly partisan, nor is it about dunking on the incumbent regime, however great its failings. To be American today is to be skeptical of anything that does not comport with our preexisting beliefs. To be American is to say that my strongly held opinion is just as valid as your professional expertise, because I don’t trust you.

Democrats distrust Republicans. Republicans distrust Democrats, science, and that amorphous boogeyman known collectively as “the media.” It’s well known that neither Republicans nor Democrats trust politicians or the government, but it’s striking that, somehow, Americans trust one another even less. Such mistrust has been an endemic part of conservative politics for ages, but it has been supercharged in the Trump administration: the epitome of the Republican ideal that government can do no good and must be blown up. The problem is that when you blow up the government, we all have to live with the consequences of a government that’s been blown up.

Mistrust will continue to be a major problem for America’s coronavirus response. First, there’s the short-term health crisis, in which states can’t trust the federal government for help, hospitals can’t trust that their supply needs will be met, and the newly unemployed can’t trust a ramshackle infrastructure never designed to meet those needs.

But in the long term, Americans have to confront a new, post-quarantine reality that will likely retain some elements of social distancing, bolstered by widespread testing and health surveillance—something akin to Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, or Iceland—only on a heretofore unimaginable scale. The problem is that all the major scenarios for reopening the U.S. economy are premised on trust. These scenarios envision the power of big data to forestall regional outbreaks and flare-ups by tracking individuals’ coronavirus tests and their location so as to be alerted if they’ve been to a potential hot spot. Will Americans really trust an entity—whether government, business, or nonprofit organization—that compiles and tracks such personal data?

They will need to, like it or not. Every scenario moving forward necessarily entails an expansion of the role of government. But as political-science research concludes, people first need to trust government in order to support more of it.

While the coronavirus has exposed the deficit of trust, there’s no simple fix. A rote prescription for more trust in government is unwarranted if the government has proved itself undeserving. Trust must be earned.

But perhaps instead of increasing trust, Americans can work to minimize its opposite: cynicism. Americans are given to cocoons of self-righteous cynicism—claiming to see through the “left-wing media” or “right-wing spin”—confident that what they see in the world is a true reflection of reality—their perceived reality—regardless of facts or science. But, ironically, their own cynicism has made Americans gullible: easy prey to demagogues telling them what they want to hear, regardless of its truth.

Unlikely though it might seem, the current administration could actually take steps to reduce cynicism and increase trust, and the best place to start would be by telling the hard truths. Practically, this would look like empowering people who actually know what they’re doing. Instead of appointing a “Council to Reopen America” that consists of your kids and business cronies, how about including an actual expert on health policy? Or experts in supply-chain management? Or a professional epidemiologist? Or actual doctors who understand the front-line health care challenges? Or anyone who understands the intersection of health and economics? Empowering experts is what competent countries do. It’s what the United States used to do.

The lessons of other successful countries are clear: Now more than ever, it is vital to empower professionals, be transparent with facts, and, most of all, build a reputation for effectiveness in delivering the goods. The Trump administration already has such professionals it could empower, such as Fauci. The only difference between building trust by empowering him with a pat on the back—rather than sticking a knife in it—is the impact it’d have on Trump’s ego. And there lies all the difference.

This is how you reduce cynicism and build trust in government. And the greater the extent to which Americans all become involved in their great, collective response to these challenges, the likelier it is they’ll put away their tribal, partisan divisions, recognize that they’re all in this together, and start to build those bonds of trust among one another, too.

Mark Lawrence Schrad is an associate professor of political science at Villanova University. Twitter: @VodkaPolitics

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