After two years of the pandemic, an aspect of the disease remains a stubborn mystery: Why have some places fended off the contagion so much better than others?
America was ranked first, on paper, for being ready for a virus outbreak. When a real pandemic hit, though, we have been among the worst in the world in both infections and deaths.
“The United States’ poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic shocked the world,” the Global Health Security Index wrote recently. “How could a country with so much capacity at the start of the pandemic have gotten its response so wrong?”
We’ve been debating versions of this question the whole time — or finger-pointing about them — but we don’t really know the reasons why.
A team at the University of Washington has now taken a crack at some answers.
It turns out that if you examine how the coronavirus spread across 177 countries and look at what separates the big winners, such as South Korea and Japan, from the big losers, such as us and Brazil, there isn’t any obvious policy decision or concrete factor like wealth, population density or the weather.
It was one big intangible thing: Trust.
Not just trust in government, although that matters. The researchers at the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that if we had as much confidence in our government as, say, Norwegians do in theirs, we potentially could have avoided up to 13% of all infections.
More crucial was something more ethereal: trust in other people, like your neighbors or co-workers. This is judged by a World Values Survey, conducted since the 1980s, in which people around the globe are asked whether they trust most people around them, or not?
America is not the most suspicious country on earth, but we are far less trusting than the places that better fought the virus, such as the major Asian countries and neighboring Canada.
The UW research, published in The Lancet along with the Council on Foreign Relations, found that if people trusted one another here as much as, say, South Koreans do, we could have prevented an incredible 40% of case spread. In the U.S., that’s 30 million fewer COVID infections.
This study was searching for statistically significant correlations, not causal proof. So the researchers didn’t study why the least trusting populations tended to fail at coronavirus control.
It’s easy to imagine how trust might be vital. Consider the masking debate (I know, you’d probably rather get COVID at this point than listen to more mask talk. I promise it will last only a few paragraphs).
Masking, of all the public health measures, is more about protecting others than yourself. Unless you have a special mask, masking works for you only if other people do it too. In a society where trust starts low to begin with, it doesn’t take much to unravel the whole enterprise.
Like the spectacle at the Super Bowl. Nobody was wearing a mask, not even the politicians who had ordered everyone to.
This is how bad the mistrust has gotten. KNKX public radio did a story on a Spokane-area company called UnMask that’s been selling fake masks laced with mesh holes. The mission of the company is “capitalizing on the skepticism that has spread around masking.” The point is to subvert the effort, and to quietly stick it to all the rule-followers — by selling a product that allows you to breathe on them without them knowing it.
Nice, isn’t it?
Medical historians will have no trouble showing why the virus was able to feast on American culture.
The researchers compared only countries, not states, and they didn’t address directly the effectiveness of masking or lockdowns. They did find that “high levels of government and interpersonal trust were associated with higher COVID-19 vaccine coverage.” So this elusive issue of trust may have made the difference between life or death for hundreds of thousands of Americans.
If people don’t have confidence in the government, each other, or the experts anymore, is there anyone out there we do trust?
I thought it was telling that on Monday, when Microsoft announced it was reopening its offices, many people seemed to take it as a definitive sign the pandemic is coming to an end. The company declared as much — that it was moving its internal pandemic assessment to “Stage Six,” which means “COVID-19 is no longer a significant burden on the local community.”
The government hasn’t said that yet, and neither have epidemiologists. As of Tuesday, COVID hospitalizations in Washington state were still running an alarming five times higher than June, the last time the all-clear was sounded.
It isn’t clear whether anyone’s listening to those old voices anymore. Big Tech, though, still seems to have some trust. After the battering of the past two years, it might be the one faith still standing.