UCD postdoctoral fellow John McGuire fields a question about whether and how much we should depend on other people following the social distancing guidelines and the other measures in place to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and make us safer. His response is that we don't really have the option not to behave as if they are following these rules, because we are all depending on each other and not trusting each other means we either get nothing done or to do things which further erode trust, like encouraging people to snitch on each other. This is not like the way we trust family or friends, based on a close relationship, but because we are facing this together, with all the stress and anxiety that entails. He suggests the good to society that can come from being thrown into this anxious position, since this can strengthen the ways we hold our leader accountable and help people learn to think of ourselves as working on the same side against problems our society faces.

In answering the underlying ethical question (“Is it naive to trust my housemates to follow ‘Phase 1’ social restrictions”), we need to distinguish between two related concerns: first, the immediate physical risks to the questioner from COVID-19; second the nature of the ethical relationship between housemates, regardless the of the threat posed by the pandemic.

We also need to be careful about treating ‘trust’ as an abstract quality that applies equally to loved ones, strangers, and acquaintances. Not all social relationships can be considered ‘natural’ extensions of human sociality: ’housemate’ refers to a category of stranger we have effectively been forced to live with due to various socioeconomic pressures (Dublin’s eye-wateringly high rents, the difficulty of getting onto the housing ladder, the concentration of jobs and educational opportunities in high density urban areas). All of which is to say that trust is contextual—but that this context is rarely something we have any control over.

The questioner asks whether ‘scepticism’ is merited when assessing the trustworthiness of her housemates. Perhaps there is an immediate danger of contracting the virus (hypothetically, the questioner could herself be immunocompromised or have close friends or relatives who fall into the ‘high risk’ category).
But even before this crisis began, the questioner was already living in close proximity to a continual parade of people with whom it is difficult, and to a certain extent pointless, to form lasting relationships.

Assuming the questioner falls into the 18-24 age bracket, the transitory and transactional relationship of house-sharing will remain the norm for her for some time.

What does any of this mean, ethically speaking?

The simple answer is that you have no choice but to *trust* your housemates to abide by social distancing guidelines, despite having little or no reason believing they will do so. Or, perhaps more accurately, you will have to remain in a continual state of non-actionable distrust—by which I simply mean your agency is limited to self-directed precautionary measures (regularly disinfecting communal spaces, wearing face masks indoors as well as on public transport and in stores), which leads naturally to the accumulation of (legitimate) grievances.

How would a more aggressive ‘scepticism’ operate in these circumstances? Should she interrogate her housemates each time they return home? Demand a precise reconstruction of their journeys which also accounts for all persons they came into contact with? Require all housemates to download contact tracing apps? Report any hint of noncompliance to the local health authority?

Those are of course extreme measures. But we have already seen cities in the US, Canada, France, and the UK establishing dedicated phone lines and web forums for reporting on neighbours suspected of contravening quarantine.

(In my view, this kind of aggressive community policing is qualitatively different, and much more worrying, than the efforts by ‘essential’ workers to protest conditions that fail to facilitate social distancing.)

I have no business telling anyone how anxious they ought to feel, nor do I think it is either possible or advisable to suppress personal disquiet about our living situations and the various resentments that have undoubtedly bubbled to the surface in recent weeks. We have many good reasons right now for feeling overwhelmed, helpless, and bitter—and this makes us prone to transferring our accumulated resentment and distrust onto those immediately around us.

Nothing about our present circumstances is the questioner’s fault. And it is highly unlikely to be the fault of her housemates. But that does not mean we should abandon all hope of holding people accountable. Although the degree of incompetence varies widely between countries, the fact that our hospitals were already at the breaking point before this began, the fact that there was little coordination or financial support across the Eurozone must not be forgotten. Our immediate sense of relief from the loosening of restrictions should not lead to our forgetting such political malpractice and self-sabotage.

My hope is that it is still possible to nurture something good and meaningful from diffuse feelings of anxiety and distrust. These feelings are not bad in themselves:

‘Anger’ is the igniting fuel for political transformation. Although there is always the danger that it can consume us, anger has an unparalleled capacity to reveal common ground through shared grievances.
Trade unions and tenants’ associations are examples of relationships whose bonds are based upon an alignment of economic interests towards a common goal or mobilisation against common enemy, rather than personal affinity.

‘Distrust’ can also be an essential step towards emancipation; as when we come to see false prophets, demagogues, and pedlars of miracle cures as the charlatans they are. Disillusionment need not be disempowering. It can foster a search for new ideas about how we should live together. My advice then is to embrace your distrust and scepticism rather than seeing them as moral failings or compromises with an ugly reality, but to focus it towards real and lasting change. Distrust need not foreclose upon the possibility of fostering of new, unexpected solidarities between relative strangers.

Whatever happens from this point on, a return to a pre-pandemic state of ignorance is unlikely as well as undesirable. We must therefore find a way to see strangers (including those we already share our homes with) as something other than vectors of disease. ‘Solidarity’ need not extend as far as love or personal trust to prove effective, but it does necessitate our being able to see each other as potentially on the ‘same side’ in the struggle to define our post-pandemic world.