* The author is a Partner of the Business Internationalization Practice of the firm Nuricumbo + Partners (www.nuricumbo.com)
Covid-19 covers the world with its cloak of terror. There is a universal fear of contracting the virus for the simple reason that it can mean death. Nobody wants to die, since the first thing that every human being cares about is preserving their health and life. In daily living, this translates into avoiding any type of danger or facing it without succumbing to it, a spontaneous and natural behavior that we practice most of the time unconsciously and routinely, such as walking carefully so as not to stumble or looking in all directions before crossing the street.
But this time, the fears that the coronavirus arouses have increased in number, have been magnified and are present at any moment. We live in a generalized state of fear even when we are sheltered in a safe place, a fear that acts in the manner of a pernicious scruple, a hidden remorse or the underlying grief that causes the death of a loved one.
The infection comes from an invisible molecule that can adhere to certain objects and surfaces but is transmitted mostly from one human to another through coughing, sneezing or the simple breath that we emit when we speak and communicate. Since contagion occurs with physical closeness, the first measure to avoid it is to maintain a reasonable distance from others. And since the virus spreads with the microscopic particles that we emit when we speak or shout, it is best to cover half of the face with a mask.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about this disease, in the conditions in which it is produced and spread, is that in the absence of a vaccine to immunize and preserve from contagion, mistrust of one to another has multiplied. This, in my opinion, is one of the most terrible impacts of the pandemic, that as time passes and the contagion trajectories remain high or increase, so does the fear of an encounter with people outside our family environment and even with loved ones with whom we decreasingly coexist.
This did not happen before the appearance of the virus. There is a substantial difference between the mistrust that every human being experiences under certain circumstances and the mistrust that the pandemic has unleashed. We know that there is a hint of natural distrust and without major consequences in the encounter with a stranger. But this time, with the pandemic, mistrust of the other has turned into fear and has spread to almost everyone around us, be they strangers, acquaintances or even relatives. We even mistrust ourselves. The new fear is that anyone can be a carrier of the virus, whether it is one or both people who are watching the distance between them and covering their nose and mouth with masks. It is a reciprocal fear because the contagion can come from either of the two.
It is important to distinguish the different levels of distrust in the pandemic. It is not only about distrust of others but also of ourselves. I can fear approaching others not only for me but also for them, especially if they are older people, because I could be a carrier of the virus. (This affects me personally in relation to my parents, both of whom are very old, who live in another city and whose house I come to when I visit. For that reason, I have not dared to travel to see them.)
In principle, distrust does not occur within a family or a couple that remains confined to their home, but it begins to arise when one of the members of that small community goes on a trip or to work, to shop or to have fun, and that sooner or later returns to the bosom of the family. If that person got infected while walking outside, they are in danger of infecting one of their own. This is how serious the situation has become and this is precisely how a large number of infections have occurred.
We are talking about a general mistrust that contaminates everything, a viral mistrust. The contagion can occur in a store or restaurant, in a family gathering or with friends, in school or an office, in the workplace where workers or peasants attend. People can hide their fear of others, drinks and holding a party help to lessen it, but instead of disappearing, that fear worsens because whoever fears contagion knows that he or she also produces fear in others.
There is another important level of mistrust and it is the one that prevails among citizens and political institutions when these show that they do not know how to control the pandemic. This has become very noticeable in the United States but also in Mexico, due to the erratic, inefficient and uncoordinated handling of the crisis. The tragedy of Covid-19 is magnified in our country by the deficient and insufficient health and social coverage system, in addition to the either terrible or complete lack of policies to stop the spread of the virus.
The problem we face with the coronavirus is too serious not to be true. It took the world by surprise and only ignorant or foolish people deny its existence or minimize its impact, as is the case with Trump supporters, who consider the virus as a hoax or as a scheme of the Democrats, so for them to wear face masks becomes meaningless. This extreme interpretation may be exclusive to our neighbor, but in Mexico we also have groups of the population that mock the virus or consider it a form of government manipulation. Here we know the testimonies of infected people who confess not having believed in the threat of the virus or in the measures adopted by the authorities to control it. Unfortunately, mistrust and disbelief tend to act together and cause passivity as well as energetic protest actions, the result of which is more infections and more deaths.
Covid-19 also surprised the world without weapons to contain it and eventually extinguish it. It seems incredible that a century has passed since the devastating appearance of the “Spanish flu” and despite the impressive advances in biomedical science, the vaccine is not yet available. A multitude of epidemics have occurred since, some even more recently, but we have seen them circumscribed to places and times, such as the Ebola epidemics in Africa, the multiple viral calamities that have hit Bangladesh or the H1N1 that began in Mexico in 2009 and that that same year it was surpassed. Today governments are racking their brains trying to impose barriers on the advances of the virus while the immunizing effect of the vaccine appears.
Returning to the issue of interpersonal mistrust, what can we do to manage it?
The first thing is to assume it as a result of an extraordinary threat. There is a wide range of interpretations ranging from the most catastrophic, based on the fear that the virus could end humanity, to the most optimistic, which anticipate the arrival of a transitory normality that with the vaccine will give way to the previous normality, exemplified by those who say that Covid-19 is here to stay and we must learn to live with it.
Considering the historical examples of the crises that have been overcome and, above all, the advances in equipment and medicines, it is difficult to believe that this pandemic will not be controlled. But between now and until that happens, mistrust of the other will continue to prevail because the threat posed by the virus may never go away.
Hence the importance, secondly, of resorting to what scientists recommend based on the experiences of Asian and European countries that have been successful in controlling the virus and have fewer cases of infections and even fewer deaths (as was the case of Germany). These include avoiding both large groups and gatherings in closed spaces without masks, wearing the mask in public places, maintaining a reasonable social distance, washing hands frequently, disinfecting surfaces, conducting tests and performing contact tracing.
The next step should be to learn to live with mistrust, but becoming aware of it and preventing it from causing anxiety or stress. Some of this already happens in meetings between friends, and even between relatives, where everyone jokes with the virtual hug or kiss from a distance. But the crucial thing here is not to allow the fear of being infected by the other person to frighten us to the point of distancing ourselves from them. We must do everything possible so that physical withdrawal does not distance us emotionally.
Under these conditions, the growing use of digital communication erupts with its enormous paradox: on the one hand, it puts us in contact with unknown people and brings us closer to known people who we rarely visit, but on the other, it threatens to consolidate isolation and the physical separation that the pandemic has brought with it.
Indeed, the use, which tends to become habitual and continuous, of virtual communication is increasingly spreading. When speaking of the “new normal”, everyone thinks first of all about maintaining physical distance and replacing it with digital communication. The home office is shaping up to become part of that normality, but no longer for health reasons but rather for the merely economic, and it is likely that more and more companies decide to implement it as a new element of their work culture. It is therefore difficult to anticipate what consequences this will have on the character of the members of a company and what will be its impact on their family and social life. Will working from home help to immunize us against the mistrust that the pandemic has generated?
Additionally, companies and families should make their members aware of the importance of knowing how to handle mistrust. Dominating isolation for fear of contagion of the virus can accentuate selfishness and lack of solidarity towards others, in particular the most vulnerable groups of the population who, due to their difficult economic situation or their profession, cannot avoid the work that involves a greater danger of contagion.
This is the very specific and dramatic case of the medical profession, the health personnel who care and administer hospitals, undoubtedly the most exposed to the virus among economic sectors. But it is also true of those who risk their lives because they have no other alternative: the informal sector of street vendors, cleaning workers, domestic workers, gardeners, drivers and laborers, among others.
When analyzing the effects of the pandemic on people’s psyches, the fact that it has encouraged self-awareness has begun to be pointed out as a positive element. Obviously, if contagion can mean death, it is natural that I think more about how to protect myself. Thinking of yourself has increased a hundredfold. Well, that fragile and threatened self can only be strengthened with the company of you and the many you that surround it. But that company per se does not ensure empowerment unless it is positive, based on the full acceptance of the other, in their total appreciation, in the friendship or love that they unite with him.
And therein lies the key to managing the mistrust of others that Covid-19 has caused: for no reason to allow fear to disconnect us from others. Encourage communication as much as possible by interpreting it as an act of accompaniment. Make it clear that we count on each other, and making sure that this continues even after the pandemic is over. The new normal must consist, above all, in the recovery of confidence.
José has wide public and private sector professional experience. He has advised the Mexican Government and U.S. and Canadian investors to achieve their trade and investment goals in the NAFTA region.