03/14/2020 09:38 EDT

COVID-19 Is Dividing Canadians. How Do We Learn To Trust Each Other Again?

We will remember this moment as one that shaped our country for better or worse.

The spread of COVID-19 has put many Canadians on edge. Coughs and masks are new sources of anxiety as we go about our lives. This is understandable. We want to be safe. But the potential for division is high, and we need to actively build trust in scary times.

A few weeks ago, I witnessed an incident at the library. A young man bumped into an elderly East Asian man’s backpack. The latter retaliated. Within 30 seconds, the conversation degenerated. The younger man accused the elder of first bringing SARS and “now this virus” into the country. As trust in fellow Canadians erodes, it can manifest as xenophobiaracism and other ways.

Many have confidence in the public health-care system, but what about recent travellers, coughing commuters or anxious co-workers? Our neighbours and acquaintances? This is a crucial time. We will remember this moment as one that shaped our country for better or worse.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press
People line up at the cash registers at a Costco in Ottawa, amid growing concern about COVID-19, on Friday, March 13, 2020.

Former governor general David Johnston wrote that although trust in institutions and each other plays a foundational role in Canadian societywe rarely contemplate trust because it is “always more noticeable in its absence than its presence.”

Now is a time for noticing. 

Fostering trust isn’t just about being good countrymen. It engenders affinity, which inclines us to help the vulnerable. We care for people we like and trust. This helped societies survive epidemics throughout history. Certainly, some people will be irresponsible. But our trust does not need to be naïve.

Here’s how we can begin repairing the divide COVID-19 has wedged between Canadians.

As an initial step, be friendly. Responsibility becomes more natural when we don’t think every person around us is a jerk. Don’t assume other people are villains. This raises tension, makes us quick to lash out and fragments trust. This does not mean ignoring risk or assuming people are sterile saints. Concerns about viral transmission are real. If the commuter beside you coughs repeatedly, it’s still reasonable to take a step back. That would be sensible for any illness. But fostering trust is about a state of community, a feeling of solidarity and not suspicion.

Practise socially positive behaviours. Rather than ensuring a person sees your dirty look — which of course many of us are prone to do — smile and say we’re all just trying to be careful. Maybe less judgment will result in their being more proactive about safer behaviours, rather than a negative reaction. 

Responsibility grows when we realize that we have all benefited from living in this country.

Everyone’s a little scared. That’s important to admit. It promotes common understanding in the moment. If we see people reacting in that light, and more importantly see how we might similarly react, it moderates defensiveness and derision. This opens the door to discourse on safety and individual responsibility. 

These first steps ease tension between us. But societal trust requires more.

This means being informed, reporting symptoms and adhering to quarantine, which helps others and ourselves. Part of disease control effectiveness in countries like Taiwan, where I am from, is quick and deliberate governmental interventions, which have included publishing the names of those who violate quarantine and hefty fines. I imagine many are less partial to these measures in Canada. Here, greater individual freedom means taking that freedom and trying to work from home and reminding our loved ones to avoid unnecessary risks.

What may be underappreciated in Taiwan’s success is the mindset of the self as more interdependent as opposed to independent. There is a sense of communal responsibility beyond personal interests that Canadians can benefit from. Stricter measures on individuals are accepted as necessary for public well-being. For example, it is commonplace to wear masks for a cold. It’s a public marker of individual responsibility. We need to see social distancing and masks as such markers and encourage them.  

Steve Russell via Getty Images
A lonely scene outside Scotiabank Arena after the NHL suspended all games in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Toronto, on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

We must reflect on our civic duties. Responsibility grows when we realize that we have all benefited from living in this country. Democracies are built on the idea that a society is made up of individuals. If we think safe practices are just for others or we hoard supplies with no regard for others’ needs, we may open the door to draconian measures of lockdown.

Even those who scoff or have little affinity for their fellow Canadians need to see that, whether we like it or not, our neighbours are who we have around us. That means learning to live with each other no matter the circumstances. Societies function better when we treat each other well.

We can help make taking the responsible route easier for one another. Being quarantined is not easy. But isolation is dampened when we make the time to connect over video chat or by phone. We can create online forums for people to discuss their experiences. Care packages assist quarantine and demonstrate affection. We can facilitate responsibility by making self-isolation appreciated.

Finally, when we see ourselves as part of a collective, we can show compassion for those who do have the virus. The villain is not other people, it is the disease. We could have been the ones affected, and still may be. Beating this thing means caring for every person affected by COVID-19. This is at the heart of what it means to believe in human equality. Lose this and Canada ceases to be Canada. 

These are minor practices, but they can nudge our culture in a positive direction. We will still be here when this virus passes. It can be a catalyst for shaping our society, a chance for us to look back and say that we lived through it well. We can learn lessons for the future and find the silver lining. Prevent a dirty look. Call a recently landed traveller. It’ll increase communality, and individual responsibility will grow organically. Start a positive cycle. 

We’ll all feel a little more Canadian.

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