Saturday, May 29, 2021

Trust Is a Fragile Fabric

Of the many, many lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic, one that stands out to me is how important honest communication is. Honesty is a bedrock of trust. Trust is an essential quality for a thriving society.

While fear can enable a society to survive, it takes trust to allow it to flourish. Largely we are only surviving the most recent pandemic. There are many reasons for this from poor understanding and application of science to isolationist responses regarding testing and vaccination driven by nationalist pride (distrust!) to blatant failure to test to failure to properly quarantine to failure to experiment and on and on. Granted that many of these failures came about because we were starting from a poor state of trust, we did not do much to improve the arrangement. In fact we set it back meaningfully along the way.

Suppose we get another pandemic (we will, just wait). Suppose further that it is similar to COVID in terms of virulence and contagion. Perhaps it is dissimilar enough that we have a caught-off-guard type of reaction thus making it even more similar to COVID. But we do remember COVID, so we actually do have some improvements in societal and government response. For example, some communities, large business firms, perhaps the federal government wants to conduct wipe-spread, rapid testing. What might stand in the way of that policy being well received and complied with?

The people that would need to be getting tested would need strong assurance that a positive test would be met with reasonable consequences. What about our response to COVID would give them that assurance? Although people would definitely want to know if they were infected all else equal, pushing back against this desire would be multiple, reasonable concerns. Namely, that they would be subject to harsh treatment if positive (social stigma, rough or indefinite or otherwise undesirable detention, etc.) and perhaps more reasonably that they would be subject to involuntary quarantine, lockdown, social stigma, etc. even if they tested negative. 

Compounding this would be a distrust that they were getting the full story. Vaccination acceptance still suffers from the horrible Tuskegee Study crime. To a lesser degree dismissive elite responses to those with concerns about vaccination, as unfounded as those may be, also deters people from trusting authorities on vaccines. Being told masks are worthless and then that masks were essential sent a clear message--don't trust the authorities. This was one of many noble lies, a short-sighted concept that completely fails to ask the essential question: And then what?

The Chinese government lied to the world at the early stages of the pandemic. They have characteristically been very deceptive as the pandemic has unfolded including apparently not cooperating with the investigation of a lab leak cause. We should expect and demand better from our authorities. In the long run people respect the concept of 'we don't know' especially when coupled with transparent, honest, and updating 'here is what we are thinking'. The 'And then what?' from this approach is productive responsibility and fruitful experimentation. 

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