Trust, a public good of strategic importance

When the pandemic erupts in 2020, the Confederation is unprepared. After a period of minimizing the danger, the federal authorities reacted strongly once surrounding countries began to do the same. It’s panic in Bern.

In the sociology of disasters, the panic of elites is a well-known phenomenon, unlike that of the population, which is extremely rare. In addition, the scientific study of disasters underlines the regularity of institutional dysfunctions during crises. One of the main factors is the structural lack of crisis preparedness; a lack of preparation which itself increases the dimensions of the crisis. There is the crisis itself, clearly determined, and the crisis of the crisis, that is to say the confusion of the authorities and the crisis management bodies.

The management of the crisis of the crisis has two functions: one operational, to regain some control of the situation; the other reputational, to limit the negative political repercussions of the situation. In this context, it is common for institutions to conceal information or for their officials to blame others for events.

While withholding information may be necessary in certain contexts, it nevertheless runs the risk of fueling public distrust over time. Beyond a certain threshold, the breach of trust is difficult to repair; which further complicates crisis management. To inspire and trust requires honesty, loyalty, acknowledgment of mistakes and making amends.

We find several of these dynamics at work in the management of the pandemic, starting in March 2020: in the absence of anticipation, the authorities claim that masks are useless for the general population, instead of publicly acknowledging the insufficiency supplies for caregivers. When the supply is finally secure, the discourse changes and the mask becomes compulsory. The authorities invoke “the evolution of science” and not the rediscovered security of supply.

This episode sets the tone for crisis management. As soon as the first general confinement ended, the authorities blamed the population on the basis of unfavorable indicators. On the media side, official messages are often taken up without critical reflection, while skeptical or “anti” positions (regardless of the type) are discredited. The media no longer fulfill their role of counter-power.

Little by little, trust is disintegrating between the authorities-media as a whole and part of the population. The latter then fills her discomfort in alternative sources of information, more or less reliable. The polarization is growing, especially with the arrival of vaccines and the covid certificate. The cleavage is hardening between “officialists”, believing a priori any public speech, and “conspiratorialists”, rejecting a priori any official speech.

The breakdown of trust extends to families and friendships. The division leads some to no longer invite each other, to no longer speak to each other, or even to end the relationship. This situation creates favorable conditions for a deep political divide, which leads to weekly mobilizations against the covid law – unheard of since the General Strike of 1918.

Covid measures are now suspended, and some wounds remain open. For some, it will take years to heal the wounds; for others, the break will be final. As the saying goes, trust is gained in drops and lost in liters.

Restoring confidence is imperative to face other crises: other pandemics of equal or greater magnitude than covid could recur. Next winter should be very difficult with the upcoming energy shortage. Other major crises are looming in the short, medium and long term, some of which the authorities are not prepared for. It is therefore necessary both to rebuild trust with a humiliated part of the population and to ensure the preservation of sincere spaces for exchange and critical reflection, promoting consensus and guaranteeing democracy – because trust cannot be decreed , it is built and maintained.

From this perspective, trust between the authorities and the population is a public good of strategic importance, the maintenance of which is essential for the security of the country. It is the binder that allows the leadership of the population when there is not enough time to form a consensus. It allows each inhabitant to consider full collaboration with his or her neighbour, including in adversity. It allows meaning in nonsense, comfort in tragedy and perhaps even acceptance of sacrifice in injustice.

*Grégoire Chambaz, former deputy editor for the Swiss Military Review, geographer, expert in global systemic issues and collapse.

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