The role of trust to successfully fight this pandemic

We need to explain well why preventive measures can save lives

A patient infected with coronavirus leaves the intensive care unit at the Hospital Clínic in València / JUAN CARLOS CÁRDENAS / EFE
ESTER VILLALONGA OLIVES
ESTER VILLALONGA OLIVES Sociologist, Epidemiologist and PhD in Biomedicine. Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, University of Maryland, USA

A few years ago on a research project visit to Japan, I discovered a fascinating social phenomenon. In some rural villages where many older adults lived alone, younger neighbors were really aware of their older neighbors’ vulnerability. Older adults were asked to display specific signs on their windows every morning so their younger counterparts knew they were OK and that they didn’t need any help. The younger ones took turns checking on the entire neighborhood every morning, so people could take action if older adults needed help. This form of solidarity, called social capital, can save lives.

Social capital are the resources such as trust, social cohesion, information channels, and social ties available to members of social groups, like neighborhoods. During the lockdown in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, to mitigate isolation while we complied with social and physical distancing, new forms of social capital emerged. With people being more aware of the vulnerability of older adults, there was more community organization. The exact same form of solidarity I witnessed in Japan emerged in other parts of the world. People wanted to help others. We witnessed remarkable acts of solidarity, trust, virtual social cohesion, and civic engagement. Now that destiny is not individual, but collective with all of us facing the same problem, we have witnessed how important it is to act as a group.

To give an example, in our country we have not done a good job explaining what community transmission is

A pandemic presents not only a physical hazard, but also a social one, and while we have placed a great deal of emphasis on all these positive forms of solidarity, we have also observed the fragility of our society. A pandemic gives us clues to understand where a society is vulnerable and where it is buoyant. Some of the forms of solidarity may stay with us forever after the pandemic, but social scientists like me, who have been concentrated on social capital in the public health and epidemiology fields for years, observe the problem of mistrust with alarm. Trust is a very important indicator of social capital, a concept that heavily emphasizes aspects of social cohesion that is important for the success of our society. However, trust nowadays is fragile.

Trust during an event like this pandemic is vital to stop the spread of the virus. The problem is that we have observed mistrust at different levels. First, we have witnessed a lack of cooperation between countries. There has not been a coordinated global response to the pandemic, suggesting a lack of trust between countries that makes response very problematic. Second, there has been a lack of trust towards the information given to us by government officials. Infighting, second guessing, the dissemination of mixed messages and the confrontation between political parties creates confusion and makes people less aware and trusting of the importance of preventive measures. In fact, I have witnessed the lack of information regarding preventive measures. To give an example, in our country we have not done a good job explaining what community transmission is, or how dangerous indoor dining or the use of public transportation are when ventilation is poor. This is worrisome. Third, the lack of trust between neighbors has emerged when citizens have observed that others do not comply with social and physical distancing and do not wear masks when it is mandatory.

Higher levels of trust are needed to solve public health emergencies. Now, more than ever, a sense of community and solidarity is vital. We need cohesion and trust between countries, between political parties and between neighbors. We need clear and consistent messages and responses from government officials and institutions. We need to explain well why preventive measures can save lives, what scientific evidence we have about these measures and how they will help us. And we need to increase interpersonal trust by choosing civility. These are all critical components for a successful fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

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