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A nurse attends to a woman at a COVID-19 screening center at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. A nurse attends to a woman at a COVID-19 screening center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand, April 1, 2020 (AP photo by Gemunu Amarasinghe).

Building Trust, Confidence and Collective Action in the Age of COVID-19

, Tuesday, April 7, 2020

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The Chinese government first reported “cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology” to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, 2019. A week later, the new virus responsible for the disease outbreak was identified. Less than 100 days later, we no longer live in the world we woke up to on New Year’s Day.

We have now reached a critical period in the response to the coronavirus pandemic that has unfolded around the world in that short period. Most governments seem to be constantly lagging a few weeks behind the curve in their reactions to the crisis. Few can take much pride in how they have handled it so far.

As a result, public confidence is suffering, with trust and goodwill beginning to vanish before our eyes. At a time when solidarity is more necessary than ever, forces that polarize and divide societies are gaining force. Even medical experts in the public eye are coming under fire, with Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the leading infectious disease authorities helping to guide the American response, forced to beef up his security detail due to death threats from COVID-19 deniers.

At the same time, it is not too late for national and international leaders, as well as individuals at the grassroots level, to formulate a dynamic, innovative and diverse response to the pandemic that has the power to surprise and inspire. Just as the threat is shared, so the response must be collective too. As the evolutionary biologist Carl Bergstrom put it, “We may not act like we’re all in this together, but in a pandemic, like it or not, we are.”

In 2003, after the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq called into question the international community’s capacity to act collectively, the United Nations’ then-secretary-general, Kofi Annan, warned that the world was at a “fork in the road.”

Seventeen years later, in the thick of the COVID-19 crisis, the situation is much starker than that: We are on a knife-edge. Tens of millions of lives, as well as billions of futures and trillions of dollars, now depend on whether we choose a “Larger Us” approach to the crisis, or instead polarize into “Them and Us” dynamics.

After a period of denial, the world’s leaders at least now understand the seriousness of the threat they face. Even U.S. President Donald Trump has grasped reality, albeit convinced not by the experts, but by unnamed friends who “can’t believe what they’re seeing.”

The more somber tone adopted by his administration was informed by scenarios based on an epidemiological model from Imperial College London of the pandemic’s spread and impact. In the best case, according to this model, with successful social distancing, 100,000 to 240,000 Americans will die. In a worst-case scenario, if the virus is left to spread unchecked, 1.5 million to 2.2 million people will perish.

A crude extrapolation to a global level, which admittedly does not account for demographics or the impact of preexisting conditions, gives a best-case toll of 2 million to 5 million deaths. In a worst-case scenario, 31 million to 46 million could die. Pandemics can certainly be this fatal. The so-called Spanish flu is estimated to have killed 50 million people in 1918 and 1919, at a time when the world had a much smaller population.

But the current crisis is moving so fast that collective responses are struggling to keep up. The complexity of the challenge seems to be increasing at the same exponential rate that infections are spreading. Policymakers find themselves trapped in a hybrid game of “whack-a-mole,” where new problems reappear as soon as old ones have been addressed, and Tetris, where new challenges of varying dimensions must be managed ever faster, as the player’s cognitive horizons steadily diminish.

Tens of millions of lives now depend on whether we choose a “Larger Us” approach to the crisis, or instead polarize into “Them and Us” dynamics.

In the past week, for instance, the world has woken up to the scale of the displacement crisis triggered by a wave of poorly designed national lockdowns. In India, the massive exodus of newly unemployed migrant workers from urban centers is said to be the country’s largest population transfer since Partition. Riots have erupted in China and the Philippines, while the Italian and Spanish governments are increasingly concerned at the fraying of their countries’ social contract.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis caused by local and national shutdowns lurches daily from bad to catastrophic. In the U.S., unemployment claims have surged by 3,000 percent. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis projected that almost a third of American workers could find themselves unemployed—numbers not seen since the Great Depression—and no one batted an eyelid.

Developing countries that are next in line for the pandemic’s spread now face a wave of economic destruction. Many are already experiencing savage capital outflows, even as they struggle to assemble stimulus packages after years of gorging on debt. Combined, economies in Africa may contract by up to 8 percent of GDP, while India and China are seeing their export markets evaporate. The World Bank has warned that 11 million people could be pushed into poverty in Asia alone.

And then, of course, there’s the dizzying rise in infections and the shocking number of associated deaths in the past seven days. Trump is not alone in waking up to the gravity of the situation. With more than a million people infected, this has been the week where COVID-19 has moved from being a threat that is “out there” to an infection inside everyone’s homes, communities and social networks.

Shooting the Rapids

In a recent interview for World Politics Review, Britain’s former chief emergency planner, Bruce Mann, told us that pandemics top every government’s list of potential threats. So regardless of how well or poorly the world responded to COVID-19, “it was always going to be horrible.”

Let’s push that further. In this pandemic, a rule of thumb for decision-making will be to expect the worst, and to prepare to face it with limited bandwidth, stretched resources and a workforce that is struggling from top to bottom with infection, exhaustion, isolation and grief.

Back in 2010, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, we co-authored a paper with Bruce Jones—now director of the Brookings Institution’s program on international order and strategy—mapping out the long crisis of globalization. In it, we explored the challenge of evaporating bandwidth, and likened navigating the long crisis to shooting the rapids of a whitewater river, a metaphor drawn from Shell Oil’s scenario planning in the 1970s.

A boat can take many paths through whitewater, but most of them end with it destroyed on the rocks, or capsized and its occupants dumped into the rapids. As we wrote in 2010, “It is the river, not the paddler, which dictates the speed with which the boat moves. There is no opportunity to take a timeout to rethink strategy or to reverse direction.” The only option is to keep paddling, even as rough water makes it harder to control the boat. Above all, the challenge is a collective one: The direction of the boat “depends not on the weakest rower, nor on the strongest, but on the efforts of all the rowers,” as Columbia economist Scott Barrett wrote in his book “Why Cooperate?

This pandemic is like a stretch of especially perilous whitewater, with the virus controlling the tempo. Even best-case outcomes will be messy; much will be lost even if we make it to smooth water ahead. And those who are willing to row together must resist both the spoilers who actively pursue a path of destruction, and the tendency to retreat into polarization at a time when so much depends on the willingness to work collectively.

Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer.
A volunteer at a coronavirus testing site in Philadelphia, March 20, 2020 (Photo by Tim Tai for The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP).

Though it may be hard to discern amid the chaos, much of this work has already begun. The science is moving at a dizzying pace. During the first 100 days of the pandemic, 45,000 research papers have been collected in an open source database. Many countries have already performed hundreds of thousands of tests and will soon have the capacity to distribute millions through Amazon and other platforms. When China built two hospitals in 10 days, it seemed an impossible feat. Europe and America are now building, equipping and staffing intensive care wards at a similarly impressive pace.

Waves of innovation are taking shape in other sectors, too. A massive shift to online working has kept economic activity alive, with the internet—originally designed as “a communications network for humanity during a crisis”—so far coping with the pressure. Companies, large and small, have rushed to expand delivery channels that can reach people at home, although not without further highlighting the divide between blue- and white-collar workers.

With more than 1.5 billion children and young people barred from their schools and universities, educational administrators are scrambling to provide online learning and support parents who find themselves as stand-in teachers. If it has taken 10 years for telemedicine to disrupt health care, the evolution of its educational equivalent looks set to unfold in as many months.

Justice systems are also on the front line as they struggle to police the lockdown, stop prisons from collapsing, maintain public order and stay on top of their normal workload. In normal times, innovation is routinely blocked by rigid regulations and monopolistic bar associations. Now, suddenly, courts are shifting online, while large-scale prisoner releases are turning mass incarceration on its head.

The most intense efforts are happening at the grassroots level within communities, as people rally to feed, care for and support the people they live close to. While this explosion of bottom-up activism may be happening locally, it is organized on global platforms through a mishmash of “google docs, resource guides, webinars, slack channels, online meetups, peer-to-peer loan programs, and other forms of mutual aid.” The effort can expect to receive top-down support as funds start to flow and civil society’s major players work to build a robust backbone.

Building Trust and Cohesion

In a previous article for World Politics Review, we proposed an initial plan for responding to three interlocking emergencies generated by the COVID-19 pandemic: a public health disaster that is unlikely to fully end for two years; an economic, employment and financial crisis that will take five years or more to unfold; and a political, social and cultural dislocation that will transform societies over a generation.

We called for governments not to lose sight of the slower-moving crises, even as public health priorities gobble time and resources. The economic pain is only just beginning, but governments are rolling out stimulus packages at a faster pace than after the shock of the global financial crisis in 2008.

These measures are imperfect, but there is at least a willingness to direct money toward people and their needs, rather than simply filling the pockets of big business. In the coming months, governments will need to resist the clarion call of lobbyists and keep the corporate snout out of the bailout trough. Citizens are sacrificing so much during this pandemic that any economic reset must tackle inequality and ultimately be paid for by the elites who appropriated an unacceptable share of wealth in the pre-pandemic years.

We must resist the tendency to retreat into polarization at a time when so much depends on the willingness to work collectively.

But so far, governmental reactions to the pandemic have neglected the political, social and cultural foundations of collective action, which are now eroding fast. To go back to the metaphor of shooting the rapids, we are most likely to survive the COVID-19 crisis if we empower everyone to row, rather than centralizing decision-making, scaling up surveillance and increasing coercion.

But this requires an effort to protect trust, sustain cohesion and neutralize the forces that push us apart. So, here is the outline of a plan to promote collective action and harness the power of the “Larger Us.”

Tell a story of hope. Eighty years ago, when Winston Churchill gave his “Finest Hour” speech following the French capitulation to Nazi Germany in June 1940, he was unflinching about the gravity of the threat the U.K. and all of Europe faced. But he forbade recriminations—“if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future”—and reignited national belief in a better future. Leaders must similarly rise to that challenge in today’s pandemic. But in an age of social media storytellers, so must the rest of us.

Defend the science. Scientists have enough to contend with today without fake news, conspiracy theories and hate mail making their jobs even more difficult. A vaccine for the coronavirus is still a long way off, but the anti-vaxxer movement is already rallying to resist it. Lecturing people won’t help. Instead, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should assemble names and institutions people can trust by setting up a rapid-response version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body that has taught the world so much about the climate threat. This expert panel would provide briefings on the pandemic every week, including an update on the response, and answer crowd-sourced questions from the global public.

Counter the forces that divide. Social media algorithms are having a field day frightening and outraging us, with sections of the media following suit as they seek to protect shrinking profits. Activists, too, can thoughtlessly polarize as they battle for their issues and “asks”—and for funds. Collectively, we need to invest in solutions journalism, block trolls and grifters, and spread the awareness that anything we click on, we amplify.

Take mental health seriously. Even for those of us who have not been infected by this coronavirus, the pandemic has burrowed deeply into our minds and hearts. In the months ahead, we will be acutely vulnerable to loneliness, anxiety, boredom and—increasingly—grief. We need a psychological relief operation to airdrop assistance to people in managing their emotional and mental states. And even as we stay apart physically, we will need to develop deeper forms of online interaction to nurture our sense of belonging.

Give everyone a role. Never in recent history have governments placed so much collective energy into telling people what not to do: meeting or moving, touching faces or each other, buying too much food or too little. But bossiness alone will not be enough to sustain the public resolve necessary for an effective response. People are desperate to help. When the U.K. government recently asked for health volunteers, more than 750,000 people signed up immediately. Governments need to recognize, respect and above all act on people’s need to be involved as part of the solution.

Women wearing facemasks in London.
Women wearing face masks walk past a billboard by artist Mark Titchner, London, April 7, 2020 (AP photo by Matt Dunham).

Nurture the grassroots. Governments must also get to work fast to support community responses. “Covid mutual aid” associations are springing up all over the world, and they will inevitably take on additional roles as the crisis broadens. But self-organized efforts will only sustain themselves for so long. Governments, civil society networks and foundations must figure out how to support, empower and work with them. Above all, new mechanisms are needed to efficiently get small amounts of funding to very large numbers of groups—and to do this visibly so communities know that help is reaching them from outside.

Enforce lockdowns fairly. Lockdown restrictions have made many things scarce, from fresh air and a social life, to sex between people who don’t live together. Citizens are now acutely sensitive to the nuances of these rules and the fallout from their imposition. Nitpicking when it comes to enforcement only fuels resentment. Serious abuses by the police and security forces could trigger flashpoints that could upend national cohesion or generate grievances that could fester for a generation.

Confront new inequalities. When it comes to social inequality, the new front lines are between those who have food supplies or toilet roll, a white-collar job that can be done from home, or access to outside space—and those who don’t. Stimulus packages address some of the impact of these inequalities, but nowhere near enough, and discontent is already stirring. Policymakers must watch for shifting markers of privilege and status, responding rapidly with targeted support for the new “left behind.”

People are desperate to help. Governments need to recognize, respect and above all act on people’s need to be involved as part of the solution.

Deter profiteers and free riders. Many businesses are stepping up by innovating, sustaining supply chains or keeping staff on. But others have been guilty of selfish or extractive behavior. The global business community should urgently agree on a set of principles for responsible behavior in this crisis and ask all firms, large and small, to publicly endorse them. And multinational businesses seeing growing profits, particularly the technology giants and Big Pharma, should immediately end their rearguard action against fair global taxation, or accept the inevitable alternative of a populist and progressive backlash.

Take it global. As people die in growing numbers, national governments and their leaders are treating COVID-19 as a new forum for competition. Whether it’s Trump blaming China for the outbreak or China’s conspiracy theories about the U.S. Army introducing the disease, alongside Beijing’s showboating public diplomacy, the squabbling is counterproductive. The U.N. should urgently reconfigure its 75th anniversary commemoration, currently scheduled as a high-level summit on the theme of multilateralism on Sept. 21. Instead, it should announce a “Larger Us” summit—virtual, of course—that will build a collective movement stretching from the global to the local for today’s emergency and tomorrow’s recovery.

COVID-19 is the greatest systemic crisis that all but the oldest citizens around the world have lived through. It hit when many institutions and the social fabric were already looking worn.

We now face one of two futures: a breakdown, where infections and deaths are very high, economic impacts are savage, and we turn on each other just when we most need to combine our efforts; or a breakthrough, where the toll of the pandemic is still heavy, but our capacity for collective action grows.

Which of these paths we take will be the result of a choice—or the aggregation of choices made by thousands of political leaders, millions of organizations and groups, and billions of people. All of us are the authors of a story being written in real time. And we still have time to make it a tale of hope rather than of tragedy.

David Steven is the founding director of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies. Alex Evans is the founder of the Collective Psychology Project. Both are senior fellows at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.