Recreating climate of trust in experts essential for beating Covid-19

Complexities of where we are now has produced mistrust

In March, as we watched things quickly deteriorate in northern Italy, we listened to, and carefully followed, the advice of our public health experts on Covid-19. We trusted these experts and by association, we trusted our politicians too.

As a society, our trust meant we were dependent on the competence, honesty and credibility of our experts. A mural of our chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, masquerading as Superman, in Temple Bar attests to the public's view of him as a benevolent actor who acts in our best interests.

Hospital Report

Analogies between Covid-19 and war were common. Political messages often came in verse and appealed to the idea that each of using our bit would show the best of us. Restrictions during that first lockdown were seen as things that kept us, as individuals, safe. They also served to protect our societal institutions, such as the heath service. We felt as if we were all in it together.

The unity of purpose was a natural reaction to the rhetoric of war. We were facing an enemy invasion, where the target was some of the most vulnerable and defenceless among us. Comparing ourselves to our closest neighbours and their failure to react promptly was an incentive for us to pull together. We know we are the best football fans in the world, now we were going to be the best Covid-19 warriors, supporting our front-line players and their coaches.


Part of our lives

Things have changed since then. The, perhaps naïve, hope that the virus would peter out over the summer and that life would return to normal was replaced with the realisation that Covid-19 was going to be part of our lives for some time to come.

Understandably, for some people whose lives or livelihoods were adversely affected by Covid-19, they viewed the prospect of further restrictions as crippling. Others, rightly, felt the disproportionate effect Covid-19 was having on socio-economically deprived communities was evidence we were not all in it together. Golfgate was the final nail in that coffin. Together these have shaken the trust given to those in power to bring us through the pandemic.

Devoid of our perceived common purpose, a more complex space has emerged where politicians try to find balance between the various forces pulling on them –be they expert, or not. The Government’s decisions to not to move to Level 5, as advised by Nphet, and then to do so soon after reflected a broader indecision as to what to do next.

The complexities of where we are now have produced a climate of mistrust. Many have become cynical as they try to figure out the real motivations of politicians or experts informing them. To continue in such a toxic climate is dangerous. We see already how the far-right has used the situation to amplify their messages and cause further division.

How are we to address the rising tide of suspicion and distrust? A message of “experts know best” is unhelpful on its own. What we need is not just trust in experts, or even the Government, but the creation of a climate of (justified) trust that will guide us through the pandemic and, perhaps, through other challenges that face us.

A climate of trust depends not on just science-based expertise, but also on complete openness, transparency and accountability from those in decision making positions. The media also has a crucial role in constructing a climate of trust. Sensationalism and turning debates and disagreements into gladiatorial fights where the last man standing is right, are destructive of trust.

It is also important to accept some basic truths about experts and their policy advice. Experts do not need to be in agreement to be trustworthy, nor should we lose trust in them when they get things wrong.

Act with integrity

Science thrives on disagreement and one of the greatest sources of its strengths is how it accepts and addresses its own fallibility. Within academic disciplines, robust debates are key to advancing our knowledge. What’s important is that they each act with integrity.

But what about the rest of us, the voiceless many? Don’t we have a role? We do exactly because we are not voiceless. We can speak truth to power not only among friends and family but also in our increased use of social media. But to do so, we need to guard ourselves and those in our circles of influence, however large or small they may be, against misinformation, rumour, gossip and exaggeration.

Social media has empowered us in ways that were beyond our imagination even 10 years ago, but with that power comes the responsibility of using it well – not as means of expressing our feelings of indignation and frustrations, or at least not wholly for these purposes with scant regard for truth or evidence.

Social media can be a way of adding to the stock of shared knowledge and a means of creating a space for honest, informed and reasonable discussions – a marketplace for ideas.

Our conversations may be intimate and small-scale, but social media also provides the opportunity to engage the voices of experts, policymakers, traditional media and lay people in an open democratic forum. What is crucial to both levels of conversation, however, is respect for evidence, reliance on critical thinking and good dose of intellectual humility.

While the climate of trust that sustained us through the early days of the pandemic may be harder to establish in this complex phase, it is a prize worth fighting for.

Prof Maria Baghramian and Dr Shane Bergin are academics at University College Dublin. Both are involved with Peritia – a pan European project exploring trust in expertise