A crisis is an event that leads to an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community, or society as a whole (Wikipedia). “The Chinese word for crisis presents an excellent depiction of the components of a crisis. The word ‘crisis’ in Chinese is formed with the characters for danger and opportunity… ‘Crisis is a perception or experience of an event or situation that triggers an intolerable difficulty that exceeds the person’s internal resources and coping mechanisms.’ (James and Gilliland, 2001)” (“Psychological Crisis Types and Causes,” by Kendra Cherry, VeryWellMind.com)

Not since the Great Depression have we witnessed a similar crisis of trust as we enter the second year of the coronavirus pandemic. Just under a century ago, the Great Depression began with the stock market crash in the fall of 1929. The stock market crash marked the beginning of a decade of high unemployment, poverty, low profits, deflation, plunging farm incomes, and lost opportunities for economic growth and personal advancement. Altogether, there was a general loss of confidence and trust of government, politicians, and public agencies. Above all, what happened in the early 1930s was a loss of trust in authority, specifically a loss of faith that the institutions that ordered society could be counted on to provide stability and enable prosperity.

As the world attempts to find solutions to the escalating coronavirus pandemic, a crisis of whom to believe and whom to trust has emerged, posing a major challenge for political leaders managing the pandemic in their respective countries. Levels of trust in our institutions, in our political leaders, and in one another are at an all-time low. When social trust and a sense of a common destiny collapses, nations fail. Can we stop this spiraling descent before it’s too late? The widespread rejection, cynicism, and distrust of democratically elected leaders will remain with us way after coronavirus has passed and is no longer a threat. The evolution of a virus into a partisan political weapon has only amplified the public’s crisis of whom to trust and believe, and its flip side whom not to trust or believe. The assault on truth, medical decisions, and medical recommendations will last long after the current political electoral cycle, and the price of an escalating infection rate and a soaring death toll will be paid by the general public. The Democratic Party, progressives, and their media cohorts have succeeded in convincing the public to question the sincerity of conservative political leaders to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

In the United States, Israel, and most of the European continent, elected political leaders have had to deal with an aggressive and round-the-clock delegitimization campaign by progressive political opponents, social media, media celebrities, and media journalists who have questioned, ridiculed, and dismissed basic guidelines and recommendations so as to weaken the public’s support of conservative leaders such as President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu in their respective countries. Even with an effective coronavirus vaccine just around the corner, with the level of misinformation and mistrust emanating from political opponents such as the Democratic Party in the United States and among opposition political parties in Israel at an all-time high, the public is unsure and unwilling to accept scientific advances and recommendations. This is hampering an effective pandemic response by elected leaders as they provide solutions.

Over the past year, coronavirus has reached all corners of the world, claiming the lives of well over 1.4 million people globally. Due to the public’s mounting lack of trust, elected leaders worldwide have been struggling to provide the necessary guidance and protective measures to counter infection rates. Regulatory and judicial delays in releasing coherent instructions, lack of effective epidemiological investigation recommendations, and hospital systems that were unprepared and overwhelmed have become a reality in most of the Western world.

Subsequently, the public was called to wear masks, practice social distancing, and adhere to strict quarantine restrictions and periodic lockdowns. What could have been a coordinated and cooperative effort from both sides of the aisle to encourage the public’s cooperation as the corona pandemic spread uncontrollably has instead left us with a confused public unwilling to believe and accept simple medical facts and guidelines to contain further infection. The level of disinformation and rejection of scientific expertise as to the importance of getting vaccinated will hamper its effectiveness. Controlling the corona pandemic with the use of vaccines might very well fail unless the public is willing to get vaccinated.

It has become all too common to hear the following type of defiance from those who have a platform to impact public opinion: “All speculation, unscientific guesswork, and ultimately unprovable. There is a creepy worship of pseudo-science — counting lots of nugatory quantities; publishing abstruse, indecipherable “studies”; and treating fallible interpretations of theoretical numbers as hard fact — that is reaching its zenith in the age of COVID-19.” Many reports getting wide attention clearly show that public-opinion polling shows only a slim majority of Americans are willing to trust a first-generation vaccine, and due to the crisis of trust vaccine skepticism is becoming widespread. As coronavirus vaccines become available to the general public in the coming weeks and months, what can be done to regain the trust of the general public and emerge from the crisis of the corona pandemic?

The crisis of trust won’t be solved by a naive faith in truth’s innate power to prevail over falsehoods. Nor will it be solved by President Trump leaving the White House nor President-elect Biden entering. Without institutional, educational, and legal remedies, lies will continue to trump truth. In President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address we hear a clear message to the American people of 2020 to appreciate the importance of civic action and public service. His historic words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” challenge every American today to contribute in some way to the public good. In our era of the coronavirus pandemic, the American people need to understand this simple message. 

Ron Jager made aliyah from the South Bronx in 1980. Ron is a 25-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a field mental-health officer and as commander of the central psychiatric military clinic for reserve soldiers at Tel-Hashomer. Ron served as a strategic adviser to the chief foreign envoy of Judea and Samaria. To contact him, email medconf@gmail.com

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