From a threat to public health, the pandemic is now threatening to become a threat to the fabric of society: a breakdown of mutual trust and solidarity between population groups and generations. This damage comes on top of the threat posed by the eroding authority of government and science.
It has now become commonplace that one half of the high-profile municipality in the media targets the other on a daily basis, drifting and shooting hail. What also does not help are sometimes confusing, too long-winded press conferences with slightly different messages that are difficult to translate into everyday practice.
The pandemic is exposing underlying cracks in society. Discontent arises as hot lava makes its way to the surface, producing steam but continuing to flow even as fires are temporarily extinguished. You cannot keep that hot lava in check by the classic polder model. In a metaphorical sense, the major victim of the pandemic is the widely acclaimed polder model of consultation and reasonableness. Instead of satisfaction with compromises reached, gloom, criticism and polarization now dominate.
We must resist fatalism with man and might, with woman and gaiety. First of all, this country is still populated by a vast majority of well-meaning citizens, many admirable health care professionals and almost unlimited collective resources for which everyone can only be thankful. Ask yourself how it would fare in Malawi or Myanmar and you will end up complaining. What we have to do now is to consider what new democratic instruments are needed here. Besides information, press conferences and legislation, what do we have? And above all: what role can science and facts play?
Now that there is no longer just an ‘outbreak’, but a chronic crisis, lack of control and lack of support, we need more than an OMT flanked by behavioral scientists. The discussion about the future cannot be conducted exclusively by experts. There is no magic formula except a keyword. Entering into a discussion about doubts means mutual listening and dialogue. Religious leaders are part of this, as are young people in neighborhoods and schools. Fear, doubt and conspiracy thoughts must be made explicit. Among those who don’t get vaccinated, stories circulate that the bigwigs don’t vaccinate themselves, plus anecdotes of terrible undisclosed side effects and vaccines as a way of controlling the population. You can’t solve that by contradiction larded with graphs.
There is hardly any place now where misunderstandings and fears are allowed to escape the bubble of ‘believers’. In a modern, complex society, there must be room for ambiguity and the admission of uncertainty on the part of citizens. Not because the truth lies in the middle, but because support only arises when everyone feels heard and dares to come out with their fear, instead of seeing it confirmed and magnified in a small circle of like-minded people. It takes time.
A democracy that wants to be neither populist nor arbitrary bases its decision-making on solid science. Solid does not mean that science has a monopoly on the truth and therefore government cannot fail. Solid means that trust is the breeding ground for advancing insight and that uncertainty is discussed openly. That applies to this pandemic, but just as much to the energy and technology transition or the new spatial planning that awaits us this century.
Louise O. Fresco is a writer and chairman of the executive board of Wageningen University & Research (louiseofresco.com).
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 29, 2021