COVID-19 Day 45: In a pandemic, the second casualty is trust


“In the war against COVID-19, truth is the first casualty. And the second, is trust”
-Me (probably)

Organized protests against the COVID-19 lockdowns began in Lansing, Michigan on April 16. Protesters in their cars jammed up the streets calling for an end of their state’s restricted stay-at-home order. Similar protests sprang up across the country. Business owners and workers alike, voiced fear that the pandemic shutdown measures were killing their futures with greater certainty than the virus itself, “the cure is worse than the disease.” 

These protests were more than cabin-fever after a month-long quarantine. Like COVID Speakeasies and outlaw club gatherings, it was a symptom of a breakdown in societal trust in government and institutions. This has happened before in another pandemic, and like ours, started with state-sponsored lies.

During World War I, President Wilson’s created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the US government’s first propaganda agency.  The CPI’s mission was to create news stories that would support the US war effort and to suppress any news deemed detrimental to public morale. When the 1918 Spanish Flu first appeared in the US, rather than raise alarm, the CPI encouraged public health officials to lie.

The U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” The result was unintended but catastrophic. Those that believed the official narrative were unprepared for the pandemic. And the misinformation made matters worse by encouraging parades and public events, allowing the infection to spread faster. 

People soon realized they were being lied to, because they could see the truth in the bodies of friends, neighbors, and relatives. Symptoms of the Spanish Flu came on quickly; symptoms far more serious than ‘the normal flu’. Not just aches, pains, fever, and congestion, but “foamy, bloody coughs, bleeding from the nose, ears, and even eyes.” 

People could believe nothing they were being told, so they feared everything, particularly the unknown. How long would it last? How many would it kill? Who would it kill? With the truth buried, morale collapsed. Society itself began to disintegrate.”
John M. Barry

Citizens in pandemic ravaged towns and cities no longer heeded the call for volunteers and were fearful of helping their neighbors. The book, “The Great Influenza” recounts that in Perry County, Kentucky, the Red Cross chapter chairman begged, “hundreds of cases…[of] people starving to death not from lack of food but because the well were panic stricken and would not go near the sick.” 

This breakdown of society and decency should also be our concern today. Government misinformation intended to ‘protect public morale’, had the unintended consequences of creating mistrust of government, mistrust of scientists, mistrust of health information, fueled conspiracy theories and widening ideological divides. 

The World Health Organization tweeted on January 14, 2020, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in WuhanChina

The US Surgeon General tweeted on February 29, 2020, “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!  They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus…”

The former was state-sponsored disinformation from an authoritative Government concerned with control. The latter, an attempt (probably) to manipulate the public in order to preserve commercial supplies of masks for medical professionals. This along with irrational enforcement of social-distancing laws, such as arresting surfers alone on the ocean or ticketing families going on short car-trips to sealing vehicles, have eroded trust in our government bodies.

Order and civil society depend on the public’s willingness to abide and follow laws. This is maintained either by punitive force or in a more healthy society, respect for authority and the rule-of-law. As states begin to relax emergency measures, it is clear that trust and respect have been damaged.

Pandemics come in waves, as populations that were spared infection become vulnerable to travelers from hot zones. For reasons still unknown, the 2nd wave of Spanish Flu, in the fall of 1918, killed more people than the first wave in the spring of that year. Today, like then, we have no cure or effective drug treatments for the virus. The only way we can manage follow-up infection waves, is by testing, contact-tracing, physical distancing, personal hygiene, sanitation, face-masks, and self-imposed quarantines. The only confidence we have in the effectiveness of these measures, will be the trust that our fellow citizens will follow them.

Our nation was already fractious before the pandemic, divided into political tribes and sub-communities. The shutdown protests have aligned themselves along these ideological fault-lines. If, like the fearful citizens of 1918, we lose the trust and cooperation of our neighbors, we risk not just death from a virus, but nihilism and civil-unrest.   

If that trust has been lost, what can be done to rebuild it? First, be honest and transparent. California was one of the first states to institute a lockdown. Unlike New York’s leaders more focused on calming panic, Governor Newsom was frank and straightforward in his news briefings. As he develops plans to reopen the state, he candidly admitted that a return to normalcy (the way we lived our lives before the pandemic) will not come for months or even a year.

Shocking news for some ill-prepared for it by the news media calling for us to ‘bend-the-curve’, but reluctant to inform us of the months-long ‘bumpy road’ to follow. When the White House briefings talked of funding vaccine development, but failing to mention that vaccines have historically taken years not months to develop. Honesty, even with bad news, is the first step in regaining the public’s trust.

‘Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.’ In order to do that, first we need to know the unvarnished truth.



In an article for Smithsonian Magazine containing excerpts from his book The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,

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