Our way of life is fragile. Only trust can preserve it

 

Modernity made us rich. It also makes us vulnerable. Vulnerability is the inescapable condition of modern life, the price of our prosperity.

Globalization – the knitting-together of countries around the world through trade, travel and communication, assisted by advances in the technologies of transmission, computation and transportation – is only an aspect of modernity, one extending to movements of people, goods and capital across national borders the kind of freedom that had already long existed within each country.

We are increasingly aware, and never more so than today, of how exposed this makes us: to violent attack, to logistical bottlenecks and to viruses, figurative and literal. The whole project of globalization looks suddenly fragile, overstretched, lacking resiliency because it is lacking in redundancy.

But the truth is that the same risks are present intranationally, as we have lately been reminded in this country, with the blockades of railways and pipeline construction.

The whole project of modernity, and of the nation-state that was its creation, was to relieve individuals and communities of certain risks, against which they had previously had to protect themselves. Cities are no longer ringed by walls that protect against marauding bands; nor are property owners obliged to cower behind stone fortifications, surrounded by moats. We move about with an ease and freedom from fear that would astonish all but the past few generations; exchange millions on a handshake; and so on, all the many ways in which we have been allowed, as it were, to let down our guard.

Until lately, the trend had been toward greater integration. Competition, itself intensified by integration, drives a relentless search for greater efficiency, in ways that imply ever tighter integration: just-in-time delivery, global supply chains, e-commerce. But with that tighter integration comes an increasing fragility. The more connected we become, the more productive; the more productive, the more dependent on those connections; the more dependent, the more vulnerable to their disruption.

Of all the ties that connect us, the most valuable and most fragile one is trust: that willingness, indeed, to let down our guard, to work with rather than against one another. The high degree of social trust in liberal societies – trust in the state to defend us, trust in others not to harm us – is their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. Trust, however long it might have taken to form, can disappear overnight.

One of the things in which we trust, for example, is that our dealings with others will not leave us killed or crippled by a communicable disease. Until as late as the previous century, this would have been a dangerous bet. For most of human history, plagues of one kind or another were regular visitors, wiping out a third or more of their host populations, only to do the same or worse in succeeding centuries.

Still, their very regularity – the constant threat, if not the presence, of mass death – imparted a certain hardiness, even fatalism, that we, in their absence, understandably lack. The periodic scourges that were once considered an unavoidable part of life – God’s will, if you were religious; the cost of doing business, if you weren’t – would paralyze contemporary society. As, indeed, one threatens to do now.

This is not to suggest that the alarm over the COVID 19 pandemic is unwarranted. Comparisons to the flu, or even the swine flu (H1N1, more formally) of 2009 – our most recent experience of a pandemic – fail to grasp the current virus’s peculiar mix of infectiousness and lethality. The two are in inverse proportion to one another; the fewer of its victims a virus kills, the faster it spreads, and vice versa. Multiplying them together gives you the overall numbers of the dead.

We are in the earliest days of the pandemic, and the full power of its underlying exponential arithmetic – with what terrifying speed a number grows if you double it, and double it again, and go on doubling it – is only beginning to become apparent to us. Projections that a disease that currently afflicts, in the worst-hit country, barely one-quarter of one-10th of 1 per cent of the population, could one day infect half the people on Earth, still seem incomprehensible.

That is, to be sure, a worst-case scenario. But past experience suggests the actual result may not be that far off. The 2009 pandemic is estimated to have infected as much as a fifth of the world’s population, or 1.4 billion people. But it killed at about one-100th the rate of the current virus: 0.03 per cent, versus 3 per cent.

Perhaps that higher death rate will limit its spread. Maybe only 10 per cent of the world’s population will get it. And maybe the overall mortality rate will turn out to be less than it now appears, say just 1 per cent. That’s still 7.8 million dead – 20 times as many as died in the H1N1 pandemic, more than any pandemic since the Spanish Flu in 1918-19.

So this is a genuine emergency, and fully validates the most severe prescriptions for resolving it: banning public gatherings, limiting travel and other means of increasing “social distance” – withdrawing trust from one another, in other words, at least to that extent. The impact of an orderly, selective withdrawal of trust of this kind should not be underestimated: We are in for a tough few months. How much worse, however, would be the more spontaneous loss of trust that would attend an uncontrolled outbreak. For all of the other ties between us depend on it.

Can we do it? Will we submit to the sorts of harsh, if temporary, limits on our freedom of movement that may be required? Will we, for our part, alter our own behaviour – washing our hands, avoiding close contact, self-isolating as required – in ways that cannot be regulated, but are no less crucial? The temptation is to doubt it. Citizens of liberal democracies resist regimentation and are disinclined to answer calls to patriotic duty.

Except in wartime. Democracies, it has been said, are slow to go to war, but almost unbeatable when they do. For democracies retain, to a greater or lesser degree, that vital element of trust other societies lack; their citizens, once convinced of the necessity of war, fight with unmatched resolve. Something of the same applies in other crises. A reservoir of trust – respect for leaders, belief in experts, faith in each other – can mobilize individual citizens to meet collective challenges. Countries that have it, such as Canada, may hope to minimize the pandemic’s impact. Countries in which it is in short supply, as is arguably now the case in the United States, may not.

Democracies rose to the challenge in past wars – enlisting voluntarily, obeying blackouts, buying war bonds. The current war requires no less.

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