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Leap of Faith

by DEIRDRE KELLY

photography by Mike Ford

In the absence of a vaccine, there just might be a way to control the spread of the coronavirus that’s already within reach. It’s called trust. A simple word with complex attributes, trust comes from the Old Norse traust, meaning faith, confidence, security, shelter and help. Those original definitions couldn’t be more relevant today. As we all seek security from the pandemic – sheltering at home while putting our faith in science and good government to help see us through – trust has become an important factor in the battle against the spread of COVID-19.

“When people have trust in government and health officials, they are more likely to comply with control measures and to follow medical recommendations such as social distancing and the wearing of masks,” says Department of Sociology Professor Cary Wu, who earlier this year received a grant to research the relationship between COVID-19 and trust to better understand why infections spread faster in some communities than in others. His study, published in such peer-reviewed journals as Contexts, Chinese Sociological Review and PloS One, is the first of its kind to examine the effects of social capital on the spread of the coronavirus.

“Societies with high levels of social and institutional trust can function better in a time of crisis,” Wu elaborates in an interview. “Governments invested with trust and support from the public can act more quickly, and become more efficient, than those where mistrust runs high.”

If, as individuals, we have trust in each other, it then follows that we care more about each other and are more considerate

Social trust – a belief in the basic benevolence of our fellow citizens – also plays an essential role in safeguarding the public good. Remember the “I protect you; you protect me” message delivered by a Czech public service announcement advocating face masks early in the pandemic? That video went viral on social media channels around the world many months before other governments started making masks mandatory for their own citizens – largely because, that bit of health-protecting cloth aside, it articulated a basic and generally held truth. We are in this together, to repeat another oft-shared slogan of the pandemic. To make any kind of headway with the virus, we need to trust each other to do the right thing. “If, as individuals, we have trust in each other, it then follows that we care more about each other and are more considerate,” Wu explains. “Greater concern for others, in a time of pandemic, can lead to more people following hygienic practices and other protective measures like physical distancing. Communities where more people trust each other can better facilitate actions for common goals.”

Professor Cary Wu

To back up his claims, in one study Wu used data amassed from a study of 2,700 U.S. counties to account for differences in levels and growth of the coronavirus south of the Canadian border. In areas where trust in government, science and community relationships runs high, the virus proved to be less deadly than in places where mistrust more reigned over the general population. “We find that moving a county from the 25th to the 75th percentile of the distribution of social capital would lead to a 20 per cent decline in the number of infections, as well as a decline in the growth rate of the virus,” Wu says. So the evidence is there: trust is your ally in the battle against the virus.

But this is not to say that all who don’t trust are just plain ignorant of the benefits. During the pandemic, trust itself has taken a beating. Think back to the early days of COVID-19, when the whistleblowers in Wuhan, China, were arrested by Chinese Communist Party authorities and told to recant the scientific fact of an unusual virus having taken hold in the community. Then people started dying. By the thousands. Among the dead was Li Wenliang, the young doctor who had first warned the public of the danger in their midst.

Trust the government? It has since become an open question, and not just in China. Brazil’s president for months downplayed the threat of the virus, only to see his country’s infection rates soar to nearly three million by midsummer, with an additional 90,000 dead. Only the U.S., where partisan politics and mixed messages from the White House have contributed to a sharply divided citizenry, had more outbreaks of the virus. This division only grew more pronounced following former U.S. President Donald Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19 and his subsequent public announcement that the coronavirus was nothing to worry about (despite the U.S. leading the world in the number of COVID-19-related deaths). India, South Africa and Mexico – nations where trust in government is shaky at best – are other COVID hotspots.

High trust in science and high confidence in the scientific community will help ensure that Canadians are willing to take the jab

Further complicating matters are growing international concerns over the World Health Organization’s mismanagement of the pandemic, now under investigation by a number of the organization’s 194 member states, including Canada, Australia, Germany and the U.S. These countries and more are calling for an inquiry into its alleged failure to hold Beijing accountable for the origin of the coronavirus and give the world ample warning about its spread. In January of last year, the WHO publicly denied that the coronavirus is spread from human to human; in February, even as the virus spread into 38 countries, it deliberated over whether to declare a global emergency; in March, when it (finally) did announce that the world was in the throes of a pandemic, it said masks don’t really work – not on healthy people, anyway. These mistakes have had immeasurable repercussions, not least of which is the corrosion of people’s faith in an agency purportedly backed by science. That lack of trust has led to a proliferation of misinformation on the internet, along with conspiracy theories. It’s a pandemic response for sure – just not the right one.

Where does Canada fit in? While the country has had its fair share of anti-mask protests, trust in government and public health agencies has generally strengthened during the pandemic. An Angus Reid online option poll of more than 1,600 Canadians surveyed after two weeks of lockdown measures found two-thirds of respondents saying that they trusted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the crisis. Confidence in provincial leaders soared even higher, with more than 70 per cent of constituents trusting how the premiers have managed and communicated information about the outbreak. In some instances, that support nearly doubled, from 46 per cent to 86 per cent in the case of Doug Ford’s government in Ontario.

Trust in scientists and science has also gone up in Canada since the onset of COVID-19, to 89 and 91 per cent respectively, according to a 3M survey whose findings were published by the Canadian Press in early November. In the annual poll, 1,000 Canadians answered questions about their attitudes toward scientific research and discovery. In general, the survey shows that, across Canada, skepticism toward science has fallen during the pandemic, from 28 per cent in 2018 to 21 per cent today. As well, 50 per cent of Canadians now say they are more willing to advocate for science as a result of the pandemic; before COVID-19, that figure was 25 per cent. People are also more likely to be broad-minded when considering scientific evidence. Before the pandemic, CP reports, about 30 per cent of Canadians said they only believed science that corresponded to what they already believed. In the pandemic, that figure has dropped to 22 per cent. “This is good news for Canada, especially with the arrival in this country of the COVID-19 vaccines,” Wu says. “High trust in science and high confidence in the scientific community will help ensure that Canadians are willing to take the jab.”

Investing in social capital and interpersonal relationships helps us not only to navigate the negative shocks of our present situation but to flourish even during a crisis

But trust for one entity doesn’t translate into trust for another, and tech isn’t usually afforded the same level of trust as our public officials are. Take Canada’s voluntary COVID-19 exposure notification app, for instance. While an important tool for controlling the spread of the coronavirus – the software enables users to disclose a positive coronavirus test and alerts anyone who has come close to that person via Bluetooth tracking – intense public mistrust of data-gathering technology has seriously hampered the app’s acceptance in provinces where it is freely available. Health experts say a 60 per cent adoption rate is needed to make the app successful in stopping the spread of the virus, but so far, the numbers don’t even come close. COVID Alert has been downloaded only around six million times since its launch on July 31, a figure approximating just 15 per cent of Canada’s population of 38 million. Accessibility issues aside (the app initially worked only on newer-issue Apple and Android handheld devices), privacy concerns and a potential erosion of civil liberties are preventing people from signing on, despite Canada’s privacy watchdogs declaring the app safe. People just don’t feel comfortable with the technology, and this makes them reluctant to have faith that it truly will help – and not hurt – them.

What the present situation reveals is that trust represents a complex of values. It denotes integrity, honesty, reliability, competence and open communication. When people trust, they give up a little part of themselves to the unknown in the belief that they will get something in return. When you entrust your money to a bank, you are rewarded with interest. When you trust that your classmates will catch you as you fall backward from a height with your eyes closed – a community-building game organized by your school’s trippy theatre arts teacher – you at the very least are rewarded with a dare fulfilled. When you travel, you trust that the trains will run on time to bring you to your destination, and nowadays, when you line up outside to get into a store, you trust others will do the same and that civility will rule. Otherwise, that way chaos lies – which is why trust remains so important.

COVID-19 is being called the great equalizer. It heeds no boundaries in claiming its next victim. But it does get a reckoning when confronted by trust. That much is now known as a result of Wu’s research. Trust drives public safety, along with the economy, education, good governance and so much else important to our future as a society. Trust empowers. It engenders strength and courage, which we all need more of in times like these. 

“Stable and vibrant communities are not luxuries,” Wu says, “but rather important priorities for managing emergencies. Investing in social capital and interpersonal relationships helps us not only to navigate the negative shocks of our present situation but to flourish even during a crisis. Our well-being, not to mention our public health interventions, depends on it.”  ■

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