The worldwide devastation owing to the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted all of us to ask big, existential questions about the weaknesses of the global economy, what we owe to each other in our many modes and identities of belonging, and the role of government in a healthy society, among them. More urgently than ever, our polities need to enjoy higher levels of trust, transparency, and truth-telling. It is these broad ethical commitments that will, we believe, serve as the true antidotes to the ongoing ravages of the pandemic.
A recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian highlighted how countries led by “women are ‘disproportionately represented to a rather startling degree’ among countries managing the crisis well.” (The Guardian) However, casting governments’ battles against the coronavirus in homogenous dichotomies such as women versus men is not useful. A more important thread running through these countries is that there are high levels of public trust in the government: “Complicating factors may be at play. Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology at New York University, notes, for example, that women leaders are more likely to be elected in ‘a political culture in which there’s a relative support and trust in the government—and that doesn’t make stark distinctions between women and men. So you’ve already got a head start.’” (The Guardian)
Another scholar, University of Notre Dame historian Julia Adeney Thomas, also is skeptical of dichotomies that commonly frame the increasingly raucous debate about the geopolitical, social, and economic consequences of the coronavirus, such as “East versus West” or “democracy versus authoritarianism.” These dichotomies, often promoted in even mainstream outlets such as The New York Times, are not helpful in providing a reliable picture. After all, responses to the coronavirus—and their results—within dozens of countries falling within these political schema have varied wildly.
In our view, a more helpful approach is to look at common themes within countries that have largely succeeded in handling the pandemic. These countries have diverse political cultures, socio-economic structures, and critically, are scattered around the world with no geographic consistency. All of the nations that have weathered the coronavirus well possess high levels of three things: “trust, equality, and competence,” and in contrast, countries that have done poorly or provide mixed results against the pandemic lack one or more of those three positive factors, and in addition suffer from several debilitating ones: “corruption, distrust in government, repudiation of science, and high rates of inequality.” (AsiaGlobal Online)
It should not be not surprising that trust, equality, and competence form an interconnected triad of mutually reinforcing “antidotes” against the pandemic. As an article published by Gallup notes: “Governments around the world are leveraging different strategies to combat the spread and effect of COVID-19, using models and techniques from city quarantines and herd immunization to social distancing. What all these strategies have in common is that public trust and immediate responsiveness is necessary for them to succeed.” (Gallup) High levels of trust in a given government mean that more people are willing to listen to medical guidelines and information issued by that government. Equality, in the sense of universal access to free or cheap healthcare, means that there is a cohesive infrastructure of testing and treatment, hospital spaces, and well-equipped health professionals that form a strong front line against the virus. Finally, competence means capably executed and sustained fightbacks that the government delivers for its citizens through honest assessments of the pandemic and identifying essential and urgent countermeasures.
Contrast this triad with the damaging factors of government distrust and repudiation of science, high inequality, and corruption, which have demonstrably exacerbated the pandemic’s effects in many countries around the world. Large minorities of citizens in certain countries do not trust their governments’ medical and health advice. These populations “may be less likely to adopt crucial government advice to stop the spread of COVID-19, particularly when it is voluntary rather than compulsory.” (Gallup) Unmitigated levels of inequality and severe economic injustice breed distrust of those in power, even in countries where access to healthcare is relatively equitable. Extreme inequality feeds both corporate and political corruption, which inflames public distrust in government at a time when only a unified response by the state can truly hold back a pandemic. Corruption, critically, also means concealing accurate facts and truthful information from the public.
There are no easy answers as to how all countries can level up their public trust, government transparency, and commitment to the truth. These are far deeper questions than simply changing governments, or even rethinking political systems. What does seem to be essential is a twofold approach in upgrading and spreading these positive traits. We must cultivate them from the bottom-up, in small communities and neighborhoods that can positively influence other localities, but also look at the top-down level, and take seriously the role of government in benefiting people’s lives. Only concerted state will and effort can really protect an entire country from this invisible killer.
As many commentators have noted, humanity has been humbled to no small degree by the coronavirus. As a result of this humbling, everyone, from frontline workers to those staying at home to even the wealthy and influential, feels a little more vulnerable. This sense of collective fragility is frightening and debilitating for many; impermanence and fundamental uncertainty have never hit so close to home for so many in the space of a few months, except for perhaps the Second World War. However, it can also be harnessed as motivation to uphold trust, transparency, and truth, with the objective of building toward a wiser, stronger, and more compassionate society, regardless of region or political configuration.
Are female leaders more successful at managing the coronavirus crisis? (The Guardian)
The Blame Game: Asia, Democracy, and Covid-19 (AsiaGlobal Online)
Virus Hits Europe Harder Than China. Is That the Price of an Open Society? (The New York Times)
Trust in Government Lacking on COVID-19’s Frontlines (Gallup)
Trust in Science Essential in Battle Against COVID-19 (Gallup)