Opinion

Public Trust

Dr. Bonnie Henry combines knowledge, compassion, honesty and total commitment to our well-being. A super-Mom

When survival depends on everyone washing their hands and avoiding contact, public trust is critical – and stretched. A serious common threat that requires communal action can strengthen public trust and social cohesion or it can widen existing divisions. It is not surprising to see anxiety and shaming those who break the rules, as the current COVID-19 pandemic requires everyone to follow restrictions on our regular way of life. Photos of people partying on a beach while others stay at home creates resentment. Stronger enforcement is being added to ensure that the behaviour of a few does not undermine the outcomes of a collective effort. Could the way we deal with the COVID-19 threat also build public trust? 

Social divisions
Public trust is strengthened by leaders like B.C.’s Public Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. She combines knowledge, compassion, honesty and total commitment to our well-being. A super-Mom. Canada has a strong reservoir of trust to draw on, says Michael Adams, head pollster at Environics Institute, in a recent Globe and Mail article (March 20, 2020). I find his evidence less convincing. He cites a drop in anti-immigrant attitudes, for example, from 72 percent of respondents in 1993 to 50 percent in 2019; while the drop is positive, it still suggests a lot of room for social divisions to develop as resources become more scarce and the impacts affect people differently. 

New technologies that help us cope with the current crisis can also enhance or strain public trust. We can connect through a range of virtual meeting tools and use 3-D printing to make emergency equipment quickly. On the other hand, social media also fuels mistrust, and disparities in access to technology could widen gaps between social groups coming out of the crisis. 

Bottom-up response
My own threshold of trust was crossed when I read about U.S. Senators on the Intelligence Committee selling stocks in February based on advanced knowledge of how serious COVID-19 would be while Trump was telling people it was not serious. Then came the demand for big bail-outs for large corporations, just months after reports that recent tax cuts ended up in executive bonuses. It’s difficult to maintain public trust when a critical sector of the society shows so little evidence of concern for the common good. 

Fortunately, this time the Canadian government chose a bottom-up response to the economic pandemic rather than relying on bailing out big players and a trickle-down effect. The federal economic response package pays attention to impacts for different groups in ways that foster solidarity. Canada’s social safety net was reformed more in the last month than in the past two decades. New approaches put a floor under workers in precarious jobs and vulnerable groups. The silver lining after the crisis may be having structures in place for a basic income system in the future. It requires public trust that workers will use money wisely and return to work, a level of trust that did not exist in better times. It may be that we can trust our community as much as we trust big economic players to build a new economy, as well as preserve our health. This pandemic may strengthen social cohesion because it highlights the links between health, income, and the common good. While we practice physical distance, we may end up more socially and economically connected than before the crisis hit. 

Trust is also the business of churches – trust in a providential God who cares for all of creation that allows us to trust others in turn. The Biblical notions of covenant are rich; a new social covenant with higher levels of public trust and commitment to the common good could reshape a post-COVID-19 Canadian society.

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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