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We need to trust each other to beat COVID-19

We need to trust each other to beat COVID-19
© John Moore/Getty Images

To trust someone isn’t always easy. We trust the people we love. We trust our first responders helping others in this pandemic. We’re told to never trust strangers from the moment we’re born, often for good reason. Today, online criminals try to win our trust, only to use it against us for their own financial gain. 

We need to trust now more than ever before. That’s a difficult task considering that a majority of Americans today distrust the government when it comes to protecting their health. Countries like South Korea and Sweden have demonstrated that controlling the spread of coronavirus is easier when citizens respect their governments. The fact the U.S. has more coronavirus cases than any other country in the world is a sign that we don’t trust our government and we are not following simple guidance from public health experts. 

Our elected leaders must give the public reason to trust them. They must act responsibly and provide accurate information to guide the decisions we make to keep ourselves and our families safe.

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They must hold themselves accountable for their actions (or inactions). They must show that universal testing will soon be available to everyone and that every effort is being undertaken to expedite treatments and a vaccine. 

Above all, we must trust one another to act not in our own self-interest, but for the benefit of the larger population. Walk into a chain grocery store in Bethesda, Maryland you’ll see everyone wearing a mask (it’s required). Drive 20 minutes to the same store in Arlington, Virginia it’s another story. Different states, different rules.

Despite pleas from health leaders to wear masks in public to reduce the spread of infection, many refuse. Some ignore it because masks are awkward or uncomfortable to wear. Others view it as their right, as Americans, not to wear one. Either way, it still increases the risk of infection. 

Today we have 50 states balancing the public health challenge of containing the coronavirus while also bringing their economies back online. There is no unified national plan to get our country moving again.

There is no national order compelling us to take simple public health steps to reduce transmission. Without national leadership, we truly are “in this together.” And that means we as citizens must trust each other to do what’s right — even when state laws don’t require it. 

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It means choosing to wear a mask in public, regardless of where you live, because the evidence shows it works to stop the spread. It means choosing to turnaround from an overcrowded beach because of the inability to social distance. It means choosing to avoid contact with close friends because it’s still too soon to do so. It means putting “we” above “me” and prioritizing the greater good over our own individual desires. 

Much has been reported about the need for comprehensive contact tracing to map the virus’s trail, but the only way it will work is if participants trust the system.  

Contact tracing relies on the willingness of those who test positive for COVID-19 to reveal personal information about their private lives; where they’ve traveled, and with whom they’ve been in close contact. When tracers follow up on leads and call people out-of-the-blue, those potentially exposed to the virus must be willing to trust a complete stranger with personal information about themselves and their activities.

Further, they must be counted on to self-quarantine, and take necessary steps to put the health of their community above their own needs, even if they’re asymptomatic.

How can this happen when we’ve been programmed to take every precaution to protect our personal information? Why should we be expected to give someone we’ve never met before a window into our daily lives? It’s part of a change in mindset we must embrace if we truly want to stop this pandemic. 

We need bold acts of personal responsibility to accelerate a return to normalcy. We need to trust contact tracers to maintain our privacy and confidentiality. Business owners must take actions that may not be in their own economic self-interest but will serve to protect broader public health. And all of us must be willing to sacrifice certain personal liberties for the larger goal of getting to the other side of this crisis. 

The coronavirus pandemic challenges us to think beyond ourselves and trust each other to do the right thing. 

Lyndon Haviland, DrPh, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health & Health Policy.