The pandemic has required the imposition of the most severe restrictions on civil liberties since World War II. This has affected the way citizens relate to the state (and each other) in positive and negative ways: while we have seen the emergence of strong pockets of community, we also witnessed a further decline in trust in elected representatives and officials, according to some surveys to as low as 11%.
The challenge of rebuilding trust between citizens and the state is not new. But for two decades, solutions have focused not on rebuilding trust but getting around it, ‘nudging’ citizens’ by setting incentives (positive or negative) to guide behaviour. This may work in the short-term but experiences from the pandemic would suggest there is a threshold at which complacency sets in – despite a full lockdown, infection rates are currently rising in some areas. More importantly, nudging raises fundamental ethical questions about how the state thinks of its citizens.
Countries in which citizens believed their elected representatives/government to be part of a collective “we”, with shared experiences and motivations, seem to have seen increases in trust in politicians because of the pandemic, whereas for us, the gap between “we” and “them” has widened. We appear to live through a vicious cycle of citizen’s negative expectations about politicians’ motivations, and politicians’ doubts about citizens’ sense of civic duty respectively. The pandemic is an opportunity to reset this relationship back on a path of trust, to change the political discourse so we can tackle the formidable challenges that the aftermath of the pandemic will bring for us, but in particular the most vulnerable in our society. The pandemic is a collective experience shared by every single one of us; let us use it for the better.