We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

Fighting a Pandemic Requires Trust

12 60 13

“Government exists to protect us from each other,” U.S. President Ronald Reagan once famously said, but goes “beyond its limits . . . in deciding to protect us from ourselves.”

When applied to pandemic threats, Reagan’s view was wrong, and so are the views of the many policymakers in the United States and abroad who have adopted it. Confronted with a novel, contagious virus, for which there is no effective treatment and against which people have no preexisting immunity, the only way for government to effectively protect citizens from one another is by convincing them to take the necessary measures to protect themselves. Especially in free societies, the success of that effort depends on the trust between the government and its people.

Some national leaders have failed to appreciate the importance of having a government that citizens trust and listen to. That failure has contributed to vast differences in countries’ performances in this pandemic and threatens to make everyone less safe when the next pandemic threat emerges, as it inevitably will.

Effective treatments for infectious diseases are a recent development in human history. The widespread availability of antibiotics and the development of most vaccines came only after World War II. The tactics prevalent in today’s effort to stifle the novel coronavirus, however, are anything but new: protective masks, quarantines, isolation, and social distancing emerged in response to the Black Death pandemic in the fourteenth century. Contact tracing originated over a hundred years ago as a tool for tracking the spread of syphilis among sex workers and their patrons.

Historians such as Mark Harrison have argued that the need to coordinate and enforce measures such as quarantines, isolation, and social distancing created the conditions from which the modern state and the machinery of government emerged. For this purpose, Italian city-states created the first boards of health and developed detailed public health protocols. A regular naval presence enforced quarantines. Governments throughout northwestern Europe later imitated Italy’s approach.

Otherwise predatory elites were compelled to assume greater responsibility for their constituents’ lives and collective well-being in order to protect themselves and their workforces. But the reverse was also true: the fight against infectious diseases deepened people’s relationship with their government. Measures such as quarantines and social distancing must be deployed quickly and consistently to be effective. Only government can accomplish that, and only if constituents trust and fund it to do so.

Trust enters the chain at every link. Ailing individuals must report their symptoms to health-care workers, identify those with whom they have come into contact, and submit to isolation and treatment. Their potentially infected contacts must abide by quarantine. For this process to work, the public has to trust the government to communicate reliable information about its investigation of the outbreak; the public then must accept the advice and mandates of government officials on measures that will prevent further spread. The promise of reliable........

© Foreign Affairs

Get it on Google Play