The spread of COVID-19 has revealed an epidemic of mistrust

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 8, 2020.

As the latest coronavirus outbreaks have reached us at home, Canadians’ concern has morphed into a growing hysteria. The virus will, no doubt, have some long and lingering effects on our economy and tragic consequences for some of our elderly and most vulnerable populations.

But in the grand scheme of things, the panic is unwarranted. While every Canadian should be careful to protect themselves and their families, the end of times this is not. COVID-19, like the other coronaviruses that came before it, will pass.

Here in Ontario, we are arguably more prepared than ever, thanks to the experience of the 2003 SARS outbreak. Our ministries of health — federal and provincial — have learned tough lessons from that episode, particularly regarding the breakdowns in communication which marred an effective response.

What’s more, thankfully, we in Canada also have the benefit of governments at every level who understand that a health crisis should be managed by scientists and experts, not politicians.

That said, while we can be confident in our governments’ response, the COVID-19 issue has revealed a larger problem: the epidemic of mistrust Canadians have in their public institutions. Over the past 30 years, there has been an observable decline in our collective confidence in institutions like government, “big business,” news media and democracy at large.

This trend is not unique to Canada but rather a problem throughout the developed world. Thirty years ago, 41 per cent of Americans trusted their federal government, “always or most of the time.” Last year, the same pollster found that number had dropped to 17 per cent. For specific institutions, the numbers are not much better. Over three decades, Americans’ confidence in the presidency and congress declined 34 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively.

Brexit, Donald Trump and other manifestations of populism are all results of this decline. And even in otherwise healthy democracies, this deficit of trust has damning implications in times of crisis; no better evidence of which is the ongoing reaction to the spread of COVID-19.

From the moment China alerted the WHO to cases of an unusual respiratory virus in the Wuhan region, suspicions abounded. After so many lies and half-truths to the world about even the smallest things, the Chinese government has made it impossible for anyone to trust them. So, when Beijing deployed a stream of apparatchiks to assure us that everything possible was being done to contain the virus, skepticism was the default response.

Iran, the country with the highest reported coronavirus death rate, has stubbornly refused to share information and delayed crucial action to manage the outbreak. What’s worse, recent events like the downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 have eradicated Iranians’ trust in their leadership, and in turn their willingness to listen to the advice of health agencies and ministries.

In the West, our response to the crisis has been hampered by mistrust, as well. President Trump has done his best to “own” the crisis, appointing Mike Pence as the White House’s coronavirus czar and making an appearance in the press briefing room, which has been dormant since July.

But for all his best intentions — questionable as they are — the president’s actions have only served to stoke distrust and paranoia. On Wednesday night, Trump went so far as to suggest that the virus is a Democrat “hoax,” cooked up to hurt his chances for reelection. What does it say when the U.S. president questions the authenticity of an epidemic that has already claimed the lives of 12 of his fellow citizens?

In times like these, the rot of skepticism and mistrust can prove fatal.

Reading the National Advisory Committee’s report on SARS and public health, I was struck by the language that riddles the section on “systemic deficiencies” in Canada’s response.

Chief among these deficiencies were the absence of protocols, uncertainties about data ownership, inadequate capacity for investigation, lack of coordination and weak links between health stakeholders. Each of these factors is marked by a failure of communication, exacerbated by a culture of mistrust, delegitimized institutions and general paranoia.

How frightening then that, such is the time in which we are living, when we most need to trust, we find that we just can’t.