The world has been grappling with Covid 19 for months now. The end is not yet in sight and people everywhere are fearful for their lives and livelihoods. To date, almost half a million people have died from Covid 19. If that was not scary enough, economies are buckling under the closure of all but essential services, prompting questions about more sustainable models of organizing work and national budgets. As we await a vaccine, experts (both real and social media qualified) speculate on the best approach to handling the outbreak. The World Health Organization and the United States Center for Disease Control have given the public mixed messages regarding face masks: recommending, then finding them unnecessary, and then recommending them again. In April, Forbes proposed that the key to battling the pandemic effectively was to be a woman. Pundits have been surprised that democracies have not seemed to fare much better than autocracies. Surely, democracy, the pinnacle of political systems, would triumph over dastardly dictatorships! Not so, says the novel coronavirus. What gives?
Liberty vs. Life
While the debates (and sometimes protests) about health vs. civil liberties are not quite over in some parts of the world, the evidence is clear: countries with greater restrictions on freedoms, such as Singapore, China and South Korea, have done better at containing the outbreak. Aggressive policies of isolation, testing, contact tracing and mask wearing have resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of cases and deaths and have provided fortification against second waves. Conversely, as the New York Times has now decreed, Sweden has emerged as a Pariah State due to its extremely lax policies. Trusting citizens to act responsibly, Sweden did not enforce isolation, left everything from restaurants to schools open and discouraged mask wearing. They now have one of the highest Covid 19 mortality rates in the world.
It turns out that while human flourishing (under normal, non-deadly times) depends on how free we are to exercise certain fundamental rights, successfully beating epidemics requires strong centralized, “Big” Government. But is dictatorship the only way?
Of course not. Arguably the world’s current favourite head of state and New Zealand’s most popular Prime Minister in a century is Jacinda Ardern. It’s not her first time sending palpitations thrumming in liberal hearts everywhere but her masterful management of the pandemic brought fresh appreciation for the young head of state. New Zealand, which is a representative democracy of over four and a half million people, has only recorded 22 deaths from Covid 19. Last week, New Zealand recorded its first cases after a lull for three weeks. True to form, Ardern is enforcing strict measures once again.
How has she managed this feat?
In Government We Trust
Well, if you can’t coerce your population into putting up with highly invasive or restrictive measures, then you’re going to have to charm them into it. A major factor in a country’s success at handling any sort of crisis is a general level of equality (income, gender, energy, etc). But there’s another necessary ingredient to get the wheels turning; a form of capital that doesn’t immediately spring to mind when thinking of plagues. I’m talking about trust.
Trust is built or broken depending on the nature of a country’s social contract whereby the relationship between citizenry and government is defined. There is a vast library of philosophical literature on social contract theory as philosophers have been debating optimal ways to organize society since Plato in 375 BC. Much headway was made by the time Jean Jacques Rousseau penned The Social Contract in 1762 in which he argued against the govern of the “strongest” but a pact or social contract between the governed and governing, ensuring the freedom of the former.
How well authorities and community members adhere to the rules of the social contract affect overall trust levels. So, how does New Zealand fare when it comes to social trust?
Quite well indeed, it turns out.
In 2018, 65.9% of New Zealanders believed their fellow citizens were trustworthy. In 2019, Ardern’s administration published their second budget which has been dubbed the “wellbeing budget.” One of the 61 indicators New Zealand’s Treasury is tracking? Social Capital. If you head to the Stats NZ website, you’ll find their plan for tracking social capital. Yes, they’re that serious.
With Neighbours Like These
But just what is social capital exactly? Social capital is the term used by social scientists to describe overall social relationships and associated reciprocity – social support, in other words – in a given community. For years, scholars have found that social capital can affect the well being of a community in a multitude of ways – from economic development to levels of crime to suicide rates to public health.
If you thought economics made the world go round, think again. A raft of studies and social scientists have been trying to tell us for decades that all you need is trust!
The implications are mind-boggling. But let’s get back to tackling pandemics.
The Community that Plays Together, Stays Alive
Social capital theory has been well explored in the fields of public health and epidemiology for decades and numerous studies have shown that levels of trust within a society (trust in fellow community members, trust in institutions) has an impact on public health. In fact, three Harvard public health experts, D Kim, S V Subramanian, and I Kawachi, have found that “Individual level high formal bonding social capital, trust in members of one’s race/ethnicity, and generalised social trust were each significantly and inversely related to fair/poor health.”
In other words, community is good for your health.
If the amount of trust a population places in their government can affect a country’s chances of successfully navigating a catastrophe then we need to work on cohesion 50 years ago. But we can only work with what we’ve got and it may already be a bit of a Catch 22. A recent study of the deadly Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 found that it resulted in a decline of social trust. So, a lack of trust can make government intervention ineffective in a pandemic and a pandemic can lead to a lack of trust. But which comes first?
I think it’s safe to say that countries need to begin with some solid amount of trust to be able to withstand the storm of social disruption that a health crisis comes with and to facilitate state efficacy in containing said crisis. We need to be able to trust our leaders and experts. We need to be able to trust our neighbours to act responsibly. We need to trust that the rules of our social contract will be applied fairly. Because the alternative – every person for him or herself, every tribe for itself – will only lead to further disaster.
Or, to put it in Guyana’s context:
“If you insist that race is a fundamental and a cultural category that overshadows all else, then, in fact, it is extremely difficult for individuals to come to an understanding of how the contemporary society is going to resolve problems that are real or imagined…”
Walter Rodney, Race and Class in Guyanese Politics
Rodney was speaking in the seventies but he could just have easily been reflecting on Guyana today.
Pulse Check: Guyana and the Mother of All Elections
We’re not doing too well at the moment at community.
While the seeds of acrimony in Guyana were sown during colonialism, the trees are still bearing fruit today. Guyana has not gained in social capital since then. If anything, it has worsened with each political campaign and decades of partisan ethno-politics.
“…by 1960, two mass parties existed in British Guiana. One of them, the Peoples Progressive Party, was organized under the leadership of Cheddi Jagan, and its membership was predominantly East Indian. The other, the Peoples National Congress, was organized under the leadership of L.F.S. Burnham, and its membership was almost exclusively African.”
– Leo A. Despres, Cultural Pluralism and Nationalist Politics in British Guiana
Since pre-independence (post 1950’s split of the People’s Progressive Party), voting has followed predominantly ethnic lines which, of course, leads to informal (and sometimes formal) campaigns pandering to ethnic essentialism (“Is we time” “They ban flour so we can’t make roti”). Expectations of massive wealth generated by our new oil industry have raised the stakes and intensified the tensions and fears. Social media is flooded with memes and passionate “lives” fanning the flames both ways.
“What scares the hell out of Indian and African Guyanese? Each other. Indians are afraid of an African led government and Africans are afraid of an Indian led government. Each tribe believes that if the other gets into power then they will be oppressed, abused and denied opportunities.”
This is the case every election season and we have to sit through a very tense week for results, during which both sides will claim that they know they won. Unfortunately, we’re quickly approaching MONTH FOUR of awaiting a declaration of the results due to a series of unfortunate events. So, what’s normally a pressure cooker of heightened animosity and overt tribalism has had been left on the fire far beyond a normal, manageable time span. Into this mix, this “mother of all elections”, throw one pandemic and one global Black Lives Matter movement.
Due to necessary lockdown measures, many are suffering from loss of income and protests (a usual feature during elections) are not allowed. The Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM), giving Covid 19 as the reason, quadrupled the time needed to complete a recount when it became required. Then the United States erupted following the death of George Floyd and the reverberations that echoed around the world made its way to Guyana. The language of the complex struggle for racial equality in America has been coopted by political opportunists, sans context, for the purpose of whipping up existing essentialist sentiment to deflect away from reason, objectivity and adherence to the social contract that currently exists in Guyana*.
Getting Off the Merry Go-Round
… social capital has been empirically linked to, among other things, improved child development and adolescent well-being, increased mental health, lower violent crime rates and youth delinquency, reduced mortality, lower susceptibility to binge drinking, to depression, and to loneliness, sustained participation in anti-smoking programmes, and higher perceptions of well-being and self-rated health. Where urban neighbourhoods and rural communities (and particular sub-populations) are demonstrably low in social capital, residents report higher levels of stress and isolation, children’s welfare decreases, and there is a reduced capacity to respond to environmental health risks and to receive effective public health service interventions.
I’m sure the average party supporter would say that he/she wants their party to win so that they may enjoy a better life. But do we have to place all hope in an electoral lottery that will result in half of us being miserable anyway? If that much of the population suffers, everyone’s quality of life will suffer.
Given the current health crisis, Guyanese can ill afford a further decrease in trust. We are scraping the barrel here. The longer the election is dragged out, the further the deterioration in trust. We already know that the election result will anger and disappoint almost half the electorate but this lengthy delay is wreaking its own havoc.
To date, New Zealand has suffered 22 Covid 19 deaths. Twenty two out of millions. Guyana, with not even a quarter of New Zealand’s population, has suffered 12 – half as many deaths. We have much work to do.
Covid 19 will not be the last natural disaster to befall us. What the world will look like in the aftermath of the pandemic remains to be seen but it is clear that we should not go back to “normal”. Normal is unsustainable. Normal is dangerous. Normal leads to societal implosions and deaths and the continued destruction of our only home. In the words of Albert Schweitzer, “Infinite growth in a finite environment is an obvious impossibility.” But who are we kidding? Already the captains of international industry are pushing for a return to normality as soon as possible. Until the world learns to value lives, dignity and the environment as much as it does wealth, we are heading this way again.
We did not get ahead of this crisis, but we can start to work on our social capital before the next. These bonds need to be nurtured and then vigilantly cared for.
We can start by being honest with one another, by listening with patience, by speaking respectfully, by resisting the inclination to only listen to people we like or support, by not applying laws and rules only when it suits our causes, by forming conclusions only after being presented with solid evidence – corroborated by the gamut of sources, from supporting to dissenting – and, most importantly of all, by rejecting tribalism as the solution to suffering.
Oh, and maybe also by logging off social media once in a while and having these discussions face to face.
The only “outgroup” that should currently exist ought to be Covid 19 – and those who seek to spread division and animosity among us.
Stay safe, everyone!
* While there is no doubt that Guyana suffers from racism, it is by no means similar enough in origin or structure to that experienced by our American neighbor. Outrage and grief at the ongoing injustice suffering by African Americans is not, and should not be, a politicized issue.