It is important for the Minnis administration and the Bahamian people to understand the significance of public trust, and how erosion thereof brought about by inconsistency and a lack of transparency and accountability, makes governance more difficult — particularly during pandemics when public co-operation and support are essential.
Without public trust, democratic governments encounter difficulty with compliance because a key element of compliance is trust that government will make good on its obligations in respect of the laws or policies it implements.
Without public trust, citizens are less willing to co-operate with calls for sacrifice, because doing so may run counter to one’s primal instinct of survival, and the need to protect one’s viability in the absence of protection government is not trusted to provide.
It is why notwithstanding consistent appeals, panic shopping and the foreboding crunch of crowds it brings, erupted on the heels of the prime minister’s reversal of his lockdown order for New Providence.
Panic shopping is a psychological reaction to fear that one’s ability to survive or provide for one’s family will be taken away, and given the irrationality and untrustworthiness of ongoing emergency orders and how they are implemented, residents do not trust the word of authorities who insist panic shopping is unnecessary.
A lack of confidence in the process of the country’s pandemic response, together with the unknowns of COVID-19, have left parents and caretakers unwilling to trust the word of their government over their own instincts and their perception of how they will be able to fare in the ongoing crisis.
Fear is one of the strongest of human emotions, and in the hierarchy of needs and how one processes his or her environment, a fear of going hungry and thirsty will invariably override fear of a novel virus, and fear of not knowing when shopping and banking days may be stopped or shortened, fuels panic.
Fear of resources being shared out before getting to the front of the line, may also be a subconscious factor in why consistent adherence to social distancing is not observed on lines for groceries or social assistance.
Since social distancing is not a natural activity for humans, and requires consistent mental effort in an atmosphere where mental fatigue is undoubtedly widespread, potent elements of fear and lack of public trust are likely complicating compliance in ways authorities and those braving long lines may not appreciate.
COVID-19’s impact on the nation’s economy has been nothing short of devastating, and without public trust, investor and consumer confidence will fail to rise to levels necessary for the kinds of rebounds the public sector desires and the private sector needs.
When business owners face constant changes to emergency orders that affect their operations; when they perceive those orders as picking winners and losers; and when a clear path to economic recovery is non-existent, a perfect storm for permanent business closures and realignments of investment plans develops.
In the cut and thrust of politics, it can perhaps be easy for those not acclimated to principles of good governance to underrate the reality that public and private institutions are nothing without the people who make them work, and the nation cannot progress if its people are collectively submerged beneath the weight of untrustworthy stewardship.
Leadership that engenders public trust promotes the kind of social cohesion necessary to reap success in public health responses such as the battle against COVID-19, and in the overall building of society.
Governance in the shadows where transparency is cliché, and where submitting to public questioning is a rarity on the part of the prime minister, damages public trust.
Unthoughtful governance that says one thing but does another, and dishonors the citizenry by failing to approach cornerstone pledges with sincerity, damages public trust.
What the administration needs in the COVID-19 fight is the kind of social cohesion that public trust inspires.
But it has regrettably made too few deposits in the reservoir of public trust, to make a good enough withdrawal.