Coronavirus: When a High-Trust Response Is Required in a Low-Trust Time

At this point, after you sift through all the tweet threads about the coronavirus, read all the articles, and watch all the news reports—there is a single message that blasts through, loud and clear. This is no time for business as usual. There’s no need to panic. However, each one of us needs to alter our behavior, at least to some degree. Stop shaking hands. If you feel sick, be courteous to others and stay home, lest you alarm (or infect) everyone around you with your coughing and wheezing. Rethink travel plans, including potentially that dream vacation you’ve spent the year (or years) saving to afford. 

There’s more, much more, that Americans can do depending on their roles at home, at work, and in public service. But there’s a common factor: To minimize the risk of facing the kind of crisis that has killed thousands, crippled Chinese cities, damaged the Chinese economy, and is afflicting Italy, Americans will have to take the coronavirus seriously, and they’ll have to engage in at least some degree (even if small) of personal sacrifice. 

That requires trust—including trust in your neighbors, in members of the media who transmit information about the virus, and in public health officials. That trust will require a change in behavior even if no one you know is sick, even if you feel healthy, and even if the virus isn’t yet in your community. 

But here’s the catch. We’re living in a low-trust time. Make no mistake, much of the mistrust in the media, the government, and other vital institutions has been richly earned. Not long ago, in the aftermath of the Iowa caucus debacle, I wrote a piece called “Make American Competent Again” where I walked through some of the truly momentous national challenges triggered not just by bad ideas or flawed ideology, but also through terrible, consequential mistakes:

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