People fear that their government may not have their best interests at heart

Roslyn KuninAs the Covid-19 pandemic waned, the World Health Organization (WHO) took a survey to determine what factors led some countries to effectively manage their fight against the disease while others suffered from soaring infection rates and deaths.

The usual expected factors, such as the availability of advanced health care or higher income levels, turned out not to be the most important. Most significant was the level of trust people had in their leaders. These people had faith in their governments and believed their leaders were acting for the good of their citizens.

When such governments or their medical staff told people that they needed to be vaccinated, masked, and to social distance, the citizens believed them, acted accordingly and thus minimized the impact of the pandemic. In countries where trust in government and the ‘establishment’ was low, this did not happen. The United States was one of the latter nations.

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Because of its high-income level and state-of-the-art medical facilities, one would have expected that the U.S. would be a prime example of how to handle a pandemic. Instead, it turned out to have the highest number of pandemic-related deaths of any country. Over a million lives were lost.

Even if the data from some countries are not accurate or complete, the death rate of one million is very high given the American population of 335 million. Canada, by contrast, lost 42,000 to Covid out of a population of 38 million, about one-third of the U.S. rate of loss. So many American people have lost their lives due to Covid that the average life expectancy in what is still the richest country in the world has been falling.

These findings indicate the serious lack of trust that now exists between the American people and their government. Americans, like Canadians, were told to get vaccinated, wear a mask and stay apart. But many Americans did not believe the government or trust the medical experts. They thought those in power were against them and were unfairly limiting their rights and freedoms.

Too many people facilitated and accelerated the spread of Covid by denying the pandemic’s seriousness or even its existence, by avoiding vaccinations and masks and not avoiding gatherings. Most were not evil. They did not intend to hurt or kill. But they no longer trusted the established leaders and so did not feel the need to follow their advice.

Instead, they turned to more extreme political groups or self-styled medical ‘experts’ with unproven treatments or cures, all of which are readily available on the Internet. A Halloween decoration best describes the results in the form of a tombstone which said: I did my own research.

The U.S. is not the only country whose people fear that their government may not have the people’s best interests at heart. China is another country whose citizens appear to have ceased to trust their government. Because it is a dictatorship, they have no choice but to obey even when the government locks them in their homes, presumably for their own safety, without access to food or the means to earn a living for indefinite quarantine periods.

It is not just the actions around the pandemic that have destroyed trust between governments and their citizens. It is often the feeling that those in power care only about politics and power, not people.

It is hard to determine what principles political parties and their members stand for. When seeking election in democracies, party members will promise what they think the voters want, determined not from a consistent and ongoing party platform but often from the latest public opinion poll. These promises are often forgotten once the party is in power.

To regain and retain the electorate’s trust, political parties and their leaders must know what they stand for; that is, they must have principles consistent with the wishes of the majority of their citizens.

The resulting trust will not only secure better compliance and lower death rates during pandemics. As research by John Helliwell and others has shown, it will also increase the general happiness and well-being of the population.

Dr. Roslyn Kunin is president of the Vancouver Institute and has been chair of the Vancouver Stock Exchange, WorkSafe BC, and Haida Enterprise Corporation. She has also been on the boards of the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and the National Statistics Council.

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