In God We Trust is the motto of the United States. It became official in 1957 as a counter to Soviet atheism and appears on all American paper currency. At this time of terrible uncertainty, most of us would not say that we trust God to make decisions for us. Most of us don’t pray when we decide about going out, wearing a mask, socializing, washing our hands, going to the dentist or going to the coiffeur. At a time when we are overloaded with advice and information, who do we trust?
We are hearing many voices.
Except for some zealots in the United States protesting for more reopening – and even there they are protesting to have the government to change policies – we accept that in a time of emergency it is the role of governments to make major decisions. Governments are in charge, they are the primary decision makers at the local, regional or national level.
This may lead to tensions between the executive and legislative or the federal and cantonal authorities. We may be getting conflicting messages from the different branches of government. In Switzerland, there is recognition that federal directives are primary over cantonal decisions and that Federal Council speaks with one voice. But cantons have been given flexibility in responding to federal directives.
Government officials have their experts. In Switzerland it is Dr. Daniel Koch, Head of the Federal Office of Public Health Communicable Diseases section. Is he more trustworthy because he worked for the Red Cross and comes across as someone with no ego? But he is problematic. He tells us that we can hug our grandchildren, then he tells us we can’t babysit with them. Au secours!
In the United States, the main expert is Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. For the moment he has been sans faute and a welcome antidote to President Trump’s suggestions of drinking Javel. (Do I trust him more than others because of his New York accent, the fact that he is a New York Yankees baseball fan or his academic demeanor?)
What about the media and experts? The media has found its favorites, usually very presentable doctors with impressive credentials. My Swiss favorite is Dr. Samia Hurst who has both a medical degree and a degree in ethics.
But the experts have given us conflicting advice. What about the French Doctor Didier Raoult and the miracles of chloroquine or the Japanese expert who is convinced that the virus could not have come from animals? Can we trust them? Which expert interviewed in the media should we trust? What about the different models with their varying predictions? There seem to be more models about the speed of the spread of the virus than beautiful mannequins sashaying down the catwalk at a Paris fashion show.
With whatever liberty we are allowed, we alone make decisions. While governments do make major decisions for us, we still have choices, however limited they may be. People flocking to beaches in groups are obviously making decisions about how seriously they are taking the advice of the government and experts. Their individual liberty trumps any other consideration. People staying home or those wearing masks in the streets have other sources of trust.
On what bases do we make those choices? We are told to be responsible. But responsible to whom? To Alain Berset, Swiss Minister of Health? Are our choices solely based on where we live? If we live in Sweden, do we trust the Minister of Health who tells us to carry on as we have done before?
Who do we listen to and trust? For finally, while each of us makes our own decisions, those we listen to and trust are the most difficult choices we make.
A short remembrance:
Gil Loescher passed away last week. He was an indefatigable defender of refugees and their rights. He was meeting with Arthur Helton and Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Representative for Iraq, on August 19, 2003 in Baghdad when the building was bombed. Sergio and Arthur were killed. (I had last seen Arthur one week before in his office in New York. Sergio had last written me on May 30. At the end of his typewritten letter, he wrote, in pen: “Pray for me.”). Gil lost both his legs in the bombing. Twenty two people were killed. After the bombing, with renewed determination, Gil continued his refugee advocacy at the University of Notre Dame and Oxford. He will be remembered by all who knew him as a committed advocate for better treatment of the vulnerable and a lovely person.