One of the hottest topics in psychology has been resilience, the ability of an individual to cope with adversity and bounce back. The resilience of entire nations has been less studied, and mainly after terrorist attacks in places like the U.S. and Israel. Thanks to the pandemic, however, national resilience may now become the next big thing in social science.

In the present context, I don’t necessarily just mean a country’s ability to hold down infections or deaths. As the history of Covid-19 has already taught us, places that at one point seemed to be doing quite well, like Germany, are now having their worst outbreaks yet, and vice versa. Government policy and public-health interventions — lockdowns and the rest — matter. But to a large extent a virus just does its own thing, mutating here and then spreading there, sparing this city now only to hit it later, and so forth.

Resilience instead refers to the ability of countries to stay functional overall, no matter what happens — in coping with SARS-CoV-2 but also all their other problems, and all while simultaneously maintaining social cohesion. And here we’re seeing big differences. 

Earlier research on national resilience, mainly from Israel, emphasized factors such as patriotism and optimism in the population, alongside social integration and trust in political and social institutions. But patriotism is more relevant when the threats are hostile humans, especially foreigners. Waving a flag against invisible RNA molecules is much less satisfying. 

Instead, trust seems to be the big factor. This isn’t a new idea. It’s long been stipulated that societies are wealthier, safer and healthier where people trust not only their kin but also strangers and such abstract things as institutions. Scandinavia, for example, is in that happy category; countries in eastern Europe transitioning from communist rule are not.

That said, the role of trust in coping with a pandemic has been an open question. Early on, there was even speculation that low-trust societies might fare better. The logic was that people keep farther apart when they don’t trust their neighbors to have been tested or washed hands, and that they’ll support harsher policies such as lockdowns because they assume their compatriots would act irresponsibly otherwise. As evidence, people pointed to high-trust Sweden, say, which never had a hard lockdown, and low-trust Bulgaria, which did.

Increasingly, the opposite thesis appears more plausible. Researchers in Denmark, for example, compared attitudes in their country and six others in Europe as well as the U.S. Denmark ranked at the top in trust — 90% of Danes say they trust health authorities — and community spirit. 

That explains why Denmark is so far coping well with the pandemic, the researchers think. Again, this doesn’t mean that infection rates are under control — after a few relaxed months, they’re rising. Instead, it means that Danes are able to keep adapting, by tweaking behavior norms or, most importantly, getting vaccinated to protect each other and free up hospital beds. They largely trust the recommendations of scientists and public-health experts, and mostly ignore disinformation. Otherwise, they seem to be just getting on with life.

In low-trust Bulgaria, by contrast, people apparently tend not to believe experts and authorities but have lots of time for quacks. Not coincidentally, the proportion of fully vaccinated Bulgarians, at 23%, is the lowest in the European Union, while its death rate is the highest.

Most other Western democracies are somewhere in between. German-speaking cultures — Austria, Germany and much of Switzerland — have vaccination rates that are mediocre at best, probably because they’re also more polarized and receptive to conspiracy theories. Surveys show that the majority of anti-vaxxers support far-right populist parties. Both are especially strong in the ex-communist regions of Germany.

The U.S. looks even less resilient to me. Since the rise of Trumpism, it’s become hyper-polarized, with indulgence of conspiracy theories almost a prerequisite for belonging to one of the major political parties. Whether to mask or get vaccinated is increasingly an expression of tribal identity or allegiance in the culture wars. Each side assumes bad faith in the other, hobbling the efforts of pragmatists. That’s the opposite of trust and resilience.

To some extent, these comparisons are unfair. The U.S. and Germany are much larger and more diverse countries than little Denmark. And sometimes there may be understandable reasons for a dearth in trust — Black and indigenous Americans, for example, have bad memories of medical betrayals by the White establishment in the past.

And while it’s easy to destroy trust — in a society just as in a relationship — it seems much harder to nurse it back to health. Still, without it, countries will be at a disadvantage. They’ll find it harder to adapt to the shocks that will inevitably come, to make good decisions amid uncertainty, to change where necessary and yet preserve their values. They’ll be, in a word, less resilient.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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